Dethroning the Nobel Prize

One arm of the LIGO detector near Livingston, Louisiana. [Credit: moi]
One arm of the LIGO detector near Livingston, Louisiana. [Credit: moi]
This week, science news is going to be dominated by the annual announcements of the Nobel Prizes, the most prestigious awards given out in medical research, physics, and chemistry. This year’s prize in medicine was announced this morning, to Yoshinori Ohsumi for work on “cellular autophagy”: how cells eat parts of themselves to recycle the chemicals. Tomorrow’s physics prize is already the subject of speculation, with many people betting (metaphorically at least) that it will go to Ronald Drever, Kip Thorne, and Rainer Weiss for their work on LIGO.

You might think I’m in favor of this. After all, I wrote a big feature story for The Atlantic on the occasion of the direct observation of gravitational waves using LIGO, titled “The Dawn of a New Era in Science”. I’m even teaching a class on LIGO and gravitational waves, which you can take. LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory) is a pair of long L-shaped buildings containing extremely sensitive instruments to detect the slight nudges of gravitational disturbances created by colliding black holes or other astronomical catastrophes. Despite the energy involved, gravitational waves are very weak, moving LIGO’s detectors by a fraction of the width of an atomic nucleus as they pass.

So, LIGO’s detection is a big accomplishment for the scientists, engineers, and other workers involved: it’s nothing short of the inauguration of a new way to do astronomy, not with light, but with disturbances in the structure of space-time itself. (As Peter Edmonds points out, LIGO’s detection is also a great confirmation of the existence of black holes, something we have a lot of indirect evidence for, but very little in the way of direct data on their structure.)

In short, it’s a big deal. And that’s part of the reason why I’m not so happy with the Nobel Prize. You see, thousands of people have been involved with LIGO over the decades, and the physics prize can only be awarded to three. Drever, Thorne, and Weiss rightfully deserve some of the credit for it, but they’re hardly the only ones who should be honored.

Science is collaborative and cumulative as its nature, but the Nobels by their nature honor a few isolated individuals as representative of entire fields of research. Adrian Cho argued in Science News that Barry Barish is also worthy of being awarded, since he directed LIGO and guided the project into something that could actually be built and used. But even adding a fourth name to the prize doesn’t reflect all the work that went into LIGO over the decades. One person, or four, didn’t build the detector, design all its parts, work out how to dampen the noise from earthquakes and passing trucks, and handle the huge amounts of data coming in.

This is a similar problem to the Nobel Prize awarded to François Englert and Peter Higgs in 2013 for their theoretical work on the Higgs boson, discovered the previous year. Higgs himself is the first to point out that the theory of the boson bearing his name was the product of a lot of minds; at least six theorists developed the model known as the Higgs mechanism, and many more refined it. The Nobel sidestepped the problem of awarding the discovery of the particle simply by ignoring the experimental side, which involved thousands of researchers at CERN (not to mention Fermilab and so on).

Restricting the Nobel Prize in physics to only three winners in a given year is only one of its problems, though, and Barry Barish is indicative of another. Barish gave a public talk in which he opened the presentation with a slide featuring both racist and sexist imagery. While he claimed he did it innocently, he also sidestepped the requirement that anyone speaking for LIGO has to get approval for their slides. The version of his talk submitted for approval didn’t include the offensive slide, so he obviously knew it wouldn’t pass muster. As it happened, the university hosting him and the LIGO collaboration both had to apologize. (Barish isn’t named in the document, but if you search for “LSC Statement on Appropriate Content for Scientific Presentations” on the LIGO news page, you’ll see the apology and public statement from LIGO.)

Barish isn’t widely considered a candidate for this year’s Nobel, but if the past is any guide, his particular behavior or views wouldn’t make a difference. Now you could say (and I know people will, because people suck) that racism and sexism and being-a-jerkism don’t affect someone’s science. But the problem with that argument is that the Nobel Prize doesn’t award the science: it awards the scientist. By doing so, it puts the problems of the culture of science — and which scientists’ work is valued — front and center. I’ve written about the issues of awarding individuals who may be less than admirable on many occasions before (see this four-year-old blog post, for instance), but let’s think about what that means in a cultural context.

As I wrote for Forbes last year, the Nobel Prizes are heavily biased toward men of European descent. Only two women have ever been awarded the Nobel Prize in physics, and neither of those are recent prizes. (The other science prizes aren’t much better, but physics is particularly egregious.) To quote myself:

Then there’s the bias toward European and American researchers, which is thankfully becoming less pronounced. However, historically it’s been a huge problem, and that’s not even including the antisemitism in the prize committee’s early years. No Nobel was given in 1921 to avoid awarding Albert Einstein. (He was grudgingly given the 1921 award the following year along with Niels Bohr’s 1922 prize, and even then antisemites fought his inclusion.) Racism in science is a very uncomfortable topic, but we need to face up to it, and the Nobel Prize hangs a lampshade on the extent we have yet to grapple with it.

Meanwhile, open fascists have won Nobel Prizes. While science as a culture loves to pretend it’s apolitical, that “apolitical” nature often means reactionary and exclusivist politics are given a pass. (NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope is named for someone who purged LGBT employees and other “undesirables” from his department.)

That’s not a problem unique to the Nobel Prize, of course. The Nobel Prize is simply a symbol of it, and a reminder that despite our advances, we still promote the idea that Science is done by the Lone White Male Genius, maybe with an adoring female assistant standing by to do the thing. That was never really true: even in days when labs were smaller, science was still collaborative.(I suspect if Einstein were publishing his first relativity paper in 2016 instead of 1905, it would have three authors, instead of being a lone author paper.) People who weren’t even acknowledged then are at sometimes given coauthor credit now, though there’s a whole other set of essays on the issue of authorship.

When I last visited LIGO’s facility in Louisiana, I was hosted by gravitational wave researcher Amber Stuver and LIGO spokesperson Gabriela González. I was there at the same time as a large group of schoolchildren from a predominantly African-American school. We need to think about what it tells kids like that if and when we use the image of white-haired white guys as the the face of LIGO, as the primary symbol of the great scientific achievement that was the work of many people, not all of whom are white and male.

Ultimately, it’s up to us to dethrone the Nobel Prizes. They rule our perception of science and how it’s done by our consent, and it’s past time we withdrew that consent.

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