Half of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Jim Peebles “for theoretical discoveries in physical cosmology” and recognizes him as someone who moved the field from speculation to science.
Channeling Oscar Wilde, “Life is too important to be taken seriously”, I – a not so enlightened hedonist – spend considerable amount of my time and energy on frivolous activities, for “merely fun”:
- What do we know (or think we know) about our physical Universe?
- How do we know what we think we know?
Things of Remembrance Past: 1983
I recall the time I read about physics with great interest. I was 17 years old. It was the summer of 1983, after my freshman year as an undergraduate at IIT(M), Indian Institute of Technology at Madras (now Chennai).
Two major events took place this year: (1) India won its first World Cup in Cricket, besting West Indies at Lord’s (in London) in a dramatic upset; and (2) S. Chandrasekhar won a Nobel Prize for Physics.
I still remember vividly reading this – etched indelibly in my mind – from Russell’s ABC of Relativity (1925):
What is demanded is a change in our imaginative picture of the world.
Where Knowledge is Free
I like the website of The National Academy Press (www.nap.edu).
Imagine my joy, when I found, a downloadable PDF for free: Connecting Quarks with the Cosmos: Eleven Science Questions for the New Century (2003), created by Committee on the Physics of the Universe (not kidding!) put together around 2000.
What about progress during 2000-2020? The official website of the Nobel Prize (www.nobelprize.org) is wonderful! It has the citations and announcements of why someone received an award, of course, but also so much more: the lectures (text and sometimes slides and videos) by the winners themselves where they discuss not only what they did (as a public lecture they are usually not overly technical), but also how they went about their lives, and why they did what they did.
A Critique of Pure Reason
A good place to start is with the citation for the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics in which Saul Perlmutter received half the prize share and the other half was evenly divided between Brian Schmidt and Adam Reiss: “for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the Universe through observations of distant supernovae.”
The ancients thought the Universe was fully formed and mostly static. By mid-20thcentury, it was becoming accepted that the Universe was expanding, beginning with the Big Bang. The general consensus was that this expansion was slowing down, and much speculation (both in the profession and also through fueling popular accounts) was pre-occupied in thinking about what would happen when the expansion comes to a halt (an inevitability thought to be self-evident): would the Universe then remain in steady state, or collapse inward as a The Big Crunch.
That is the sound of inevitability. 😏
Clueless about what was actually happening, several experimental physicists secured funding from their various governments (who tax their citizens) to calculate the expansion rate and also to estimate how it was slowing.
To make these calculations, they used: (1) “standard candles” that are reliable, Type 1a Supernovas and (2) an “imaging device” that is capable of accurately capturing the luminescence from these candles, the Charge Coupled Device (CCD).
It is now theorized that there must exist some energy source previously unaccounted for that is responsible for this accelerated expansion. Being ignorant as to what it may be, instead of calling themselves “physicists in the dark”, they decided to name the source Dark Energy.
Popular accounts, pouncing upon this, are already speculating The Big Tear. I will get to Type 1a supernovas and CCD momentarily. For now, recall:
“sometimes it is better to be lucky that to be good.”
Some Guys have all the Luck
This is not the first time that something unexpectedly observed has been recognized by the Nobel committee.
Indeed, this happened to a couple of guys – Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson — at Bell Labs in Holmdel, NJ in the 1960s. Many years after that, I had my first summer internship there (in 1988) while a PhD student at Cornell. One of them was the head of research and welcomed us at an informal breakfast. He regaled us with the story that has been written about in several popular accounts. The prize motivation (aka citation) for one half of the 1978 Nobel Prize shared by this Bell Labs couple: “for their discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation.”
That was also not the first time that an unexpected observation led to a Nobel! I will get to the story of pulsars shortly.
For now, let us celebrate some very good engineering.
Engineering the Future
In a different building of Bell Labs, in Murray Hill, NJ, another couple of guys (in 1969) – Willard Boyle and George Smith — invented a device that has found applications in digital and TV cameras, scanners, medical devices, fax machines, bar code readers, satellite and earthly surveillance, in addition to astronomy: Charge Coupled Device. This very useful feat of engineering was recognized by the NAE (in 2006) through Charles Stark Draper Prize (“Nobel Prize for Engineering”) and the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics: “for the invention of an imaging semiconductor circuit – the CCD sensor.”
Bell Labs was a great place to be. It was the birthplace of the electronics as cited by the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics to William Shockley, John Bardeen and Walter Brittain: “for their researches on semiconductors and their discovery of the transistor effect.”
Engineers have invented tremendous devices that have made our world so different. The other half of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics went to the originator of Fiber Optics, also a winner of the Draper Prize, Charles Kao: “for groundbreaking achievement concerning the transmission of light in fibers for optical communication.” The 2014 Nobel Prize in Physics was shared by Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura: “for the invention of efficient blue light-emitting diodes which has enabled bright and energy saving white light sources.” Yes, these are the guys who have made LED bulbs possible for us to use and were also recognized by the 2015 Draper Prize.
Will more Nobel Prizes be awarded to engineers? After all we all like our smartphones so much, and the creators of cellular networks (including Bell Labs engineers John Engel and Richard Frenkeil) have already been recognized by the 2013 Draper Prize.
The best way to predict the future is to invent it, as Alan Kay (a winner of the 2004 Draper Prize for creating Alto, the first practical networked computer) said it in 1971.
Back to astronomy.
When Stars Die
Type 1a supernovas occur in a binary system with one of the two orbiting stars being a white dwarf. A white dwarf (discovered in 1783 by William Herschel) has a maximum mass (beyond which a dying star in a supernova explosion becomes a neutron star instead); this is called the Chandrasekhar Limit, and for which a half-share of the 1983 Nobel Prize was awarded to Chandrasekhar: “for his theoretical studies of the physical processes of importance to the structure and evolution of the stars.”
Many times, a neutron star is spinning and is called a pulsar.
Pulsars have strong magnetic fields and so funnel particles along the two magnetic poles. These accelerating particles create light. The axes of the spin and the magnetic poles are usually not aligned and so the beams of these particles and light are swept around as the neutron star rotates. When these beams cross our (radio) telescopes, we observe them as pulses as if these pulsars are turning on and off.
Martin Ryle (through pioneering research in the 1940s) developed radio telescopes capable of capturing these distant signals. Building upon these and other developments, Antony Hewish built a next-gen radio telescope beginning around 1965; Jocelyn Bell, a research associate was the first (in 1967) to record and, more importantly, recognize that the scintillating signals being recorded were not disturbances from solar flares or other man-made noises (as Hewish had repeatedly dismissed them as), and that they were reaching us from bona fide pulsars.
But she persisted.
Subsequent checking proved Bell correct. The 1974 Nobel in Physics, however, was shared between Ryle and Hewish: “for their pioneering research in radio astrophysics: Ryle for his observations and inventions, in particular of the aperture synthesis technique, and Hewish for his decisive role in the discovery of pulsars.”
Jocelyn Bell’s 1977 “after-dinner” speech, Petit Four, should be read in its entirety. Here is an excerpt:
It has been suggested that I should have had a part in the Nobel Prize awarded to Tony Hewish for the discovery of pulsars. There are several comments that I would like to make on this: First, demarcation disputes between supervisor and student are always difficult, probably impossible to resolve. Secondly, it is the supervisor who has the final responsibility for the success or failure of the project. We hear of cases where a supervisor blames his student for a failure, but we know that it is largely the fault of the supervisor. It seems only fair to me that he should benefit from the successes, too. Thirdly, I believe it would demean Nobel Prizes if they were awarded to research students, except in very exceptional cases, and I do not believe this is one of them. Finally, I am not myself upset about it –after all, I am in good company, am I not!
Not everyone was tactful.
Fred Hoyle was not silent about this; but this just added to his reputation of being a maverick (“I don’t care what others think”) and being careless not only in his off-the-cuff remarks but also in his scientific critiques. This is the kind of behavior that most august body of scientists simply cannot let go. I read somewhere that “in academia, revenge is eternal.” It has been suggested that such a reputation cost him his half-share of the half-share of 1983 Nobel in Physics that was awarded to William Fowler: “for his theoretical and experimental studies of the nuclear reactions of importance in the formation of the chemical elements of the Universe.”
We think we know a few things are true (“accelerating universe”), but we don’t know why the things we think are true are the way they are.
I wonder if it is time to be maximally inverse!
From Science to Speculation.
Stay tuned as I infuse some imagination into (respectable) Physics.😏
If I am sufficiently lucky, it may be crazy enough to be true.🤷🏽♂️