The 2017 Nobel Prize for Physics has gone to members of the LIGO consortium for the detection of gravitational waves, namely to Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne and Barry Barish. But the contributions of many hundreds of people were necessary for the success of LIGO and so it can be argued that the restriction to three people is wrong and that future Nobel Prizes should go to teams.
Professor Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, told BBC correspondent Pallab Gosh that: “LIGO’s success was owed to hundreds of researchers. The fact that the Nobel Prize committee refuses to make group awards is causing increasingly frequent problems and giving a misleading impression of how a lot of science is actually done”.
Rees is right, of course, but would changing it be a good thing? It would mean that nearly all future Nobels in physics would go to teams, either simply to a named team or to a list of team members that could amount to hundreds.
I’m not sure this would be a good change. First, a more inclusive list of people wouldn’t overcome the fairness problem. Deciding who to include or exclude on a list of a hundred is no easier than on a list of three, indeed it is harder. There would have to be some threshold of contribution, and the difference in level of contribution between someone who just made the list versus someone who just did not would be much smaller, if the list were 100, than when the list is restricted to three.
So perhaps one could just name the team, without listing team members. But this would remove the element of awarding the prize to named people, and that would, over time, reduce the influence of the science Nobels in wider society. That’s because, like it or not, wider society is very much driven by “human interest” stories. If it were just about naming science teams the wider media would pay less attention.
Already, scientists as scientists get little mention in mainstream media. Whereas it would be unthinkable to discuss a controversial building without naming the architect, or to discuss a Michelin-starred restaurant without mentioning the chef, it is often the norm for science to be reported in purely impersonal terms without naming those involved.
The result is that according to a survey only 4% of Americans can name a living scientist. The one time we can guarantee that the quality mainstream media will both name some leading physicists and state what they have done is when the physics Nobel Prize is announced. It would be a pity to lose that.
Further, would a team such as LIGO, or the CERN teams that discovered the Higgs Boson, really benefit much from the additional award of the Nobel? Such discoveries did receive wide coverage and publicity at the time, and the award of a Nobel some years later would add less. It is the addition of individual names to receive the Prize that makes it a renewed news story, as opposed to one that would get a minor mention.
Yes, the picking out of two or three people for a prize can produce unfair and capricious results and also some randomness (as just one example, had Ronald Drever not died earlier this year he would likely be one of the three newly announced Laureates, with the consequence that perhaps Barry Barish would not be). But still, for all such quirks, I think we’d lose more if the prizes went instead to teams.