The 2012 Physics Nobel

I happened to have been online already, already browsing here and there, at the time that the 2012 Nobel for Physics was about to be announced, though I didn’t know about the precise timing of it. Still, the very first time yesterday when I browsed their official Web site, I saw the counter go down in the seconds!: 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 0! I couldn’t believe the sheer timing of it. But, then, nothing happened, not for quite some time, may be for more than half a minute or so. The Web site froze, in a way. That could have happened because I had clicked on that video link, I thought. I checked elsewhere on the Web, but there wasn’t anything yet on Yahoo!, Google, or even on Twitter! Anyway, to try something, I did a quick Google search, found another Web page (at the same official server) for the prize announcements, opened that link, and even before noticing that it was a text-based Web page without any video embedded in it, it so happened that I had already read the names: Haroche and Wineland. … Wow!

Actually, I don’t have a right to squeak out as much excited a “wow” as the above description seems to suggest. … Frankly, I was not directly familiar with either’s work. Despite quantum foundations being a part of my direct research interests, I had not read their papers in original, nor had come across any expert commentaries written with a great flourish by someone else. As a matter of a definite fact, Wineland’s name had only a vague recall in my mind; Haroche’s had almost none.

I had to go through the Nobel award’s description and visit their Web sites before getting to know about the nature of their work. When I did that, I began to think that the Nobel committee’s choice this time round seems to be exceptionally good. The more I thought about it, the more convinced I grew about my conclusion.

Which is unlike the last year’s physics Nobel. Last year, I had thought that Steinhardt should have shared the Nobel with Shechtman. The following is what I had mentioned about it, at Prof. Scott Aaronson’s blog [^] last year (a comment which went without any reply to it):

Re. The quasicrystals Nobel.

This happened to be the very first time (and it could easily remain the only time) that I could understand a Nobel-winning work right on the day of its announcement, i.e., without having to have someone else explain anything about the work to me. … Crystal structures is something I had studied as an UG (82–83), and I had courses on diffraction techniques (X rays and TEM) during my graduate studies (90–93).

I do think that Prof. Schechtman’s Nobel was well deserved.

However, I also wonder if others, esp. Steinhardt (perhaps together with someone else like Levine) might not have shared the second half of it (with Shechtman receiving the first half).

A Nobel to a mathematician (like Penrose, or even Alan Mackay) is out of the question, of course. However, I do think that the connections which Steinhardt and Levine made, right in 1984, were germane enough and early enough—and therefore, significant enough. Even later on, Steinhardt continued producing high-quality results relevant to this overall discovery. I think his contributions could have been recognized. I am not sure why the committee left him out. (BTW, do the Nobel rules allow for a 2/3 + 1/3 division between just two people?)


In contrast to the last year’s physics Nobel, the more I gathered about Haroche and Wineland’s respective works, the more confident I grew about the astuteness of the choice made by this year’s Nobel committee. (Oh, BTW, that famous three berillium atoms pic was, of course, an immediately recognizable sight; it’s just that the researcher’s name had somehow slipped into the background.)

OK. An aside. I had planned writing this post without talking about this side-matter, which I am going to do now. I decided to include it because I did a quick check on how other bloggers were reacting to the news. I noticed that Dr. Ashutosh Joglekar (who maintains the blog “Curious Wavefunction” at the Scientific American’s Web site) has brought out the relevant issue at Prof. Aaronson’s blog [^], and that the latter has responded to it the way he did [^].

Here is Ashutosh Joglekar’s comment:

It’s interesting that this well-deserved prize went to Heroche and Wineland when so many predictions centered on another experimental quantum mechanics paradigm; the work of Aspect, Zeilinger and Clauser. I wonder if this just means that the committee was not as confident of their work.

Here is the relevant excerpt from Scott Aaronson’s reply:

Curious #1: I’ve long thought that a prize should go to Aspect, Zeilinger and Clauser for experimental demonstration of the Bell violations. Maybe it will eventually.

My opinion is different.

I think that Zeilinger et al’s work does not necessarily deserve a Nobel. Theirs is a very good, very high quality, research work. They may even get a physics Nobel some day in future (and if they do, I might even congratulate them). Yet, the fact remains, in the heart of my hearts, if I try to take a sweeping survey of all the physics Nobels thus far, and thereby try to get some idea, form some implicit judgment, about the kind of standards that the prize is expected to keep, I would think that Zeilinger et al’s work falls short of it. Also Aspect’s. Or Clauser’s.

I, of course, had some good idea about the works of the last three. (Not a comprehensive idea, but still, a definite idea about their main results.) Like Joglekar and Aaronson (and many others), I, too, had this feeling that Zeilinger/Aspect/Clauser may be the front-runners in the race for this year’s Nobel. (The discovery of the Higgs boson was already pointed out by many people as not expected to be a front-runner right this year, out of many reasons: one being that the discovery is too new; and the other, that the prize could be given to only three people at the most, whereas there would be many more proper claimants for that discovery.) So, Aspect/Zeilinger/Clauser could be expected to be in the forefront, and this was a feeling I did share with others.

But, unlike most others, I also had the feeling that if this trio got the Nobel, it somehow wouldn’t be right. That the choice would somehow be tantamount to showing an understanding of progress in physics that is more superficial, less profound, than what is required by its history. That it therefore would be tantamount to giving a wrong direction to the future physics research. That it would mean that the results are not too unexpected, the researches that do not truly probe deeply into the unknown, the ideas that do not cover something truly profound and fundamental, could also get rewarded.

Just the way Einstein must not have been given the Nobel for his relativity, or Eddington, for its “verification” (to whatever degree of accuracy and precision he did “accomplish” it), similarly, I have come to believe that Bell must not have been given a Nobel for his proposal of that inequalities-related test, and that Aspect/Zeilinger/others should not be given a Nobel regarding its verification—or the related aspects.

Speaking at least only of scientists (and not necessarily of the common man), just like Einstein, these quantum computing guys certainly have managed to garner a lot of good “press” among the scientists. And, just like with Einstein’s relativity, theirs does not represent a really fundamental advancement of science—only a smart repackaging of the already known theoretical fundamentals, no matter how unintuitive or surprising the repackaging might seem to some.

Another example: Newton’s identification of the second-order differential with force, was an astounding, fundamental, result. Galileo had tried to reach it, but could not do so because he lacked the mathematical rigor of Newton. And, Newton didn’t simply stop  there. He applied the principle to the particle mechanics, and then went further to formulate the theory of universal gravitation. The idea of the force was thus well isolated and clearly established—by Newton. Later, when d’Alembert came on the scene and formulated his principle, it certainly was a welcome development. The conceptual shift that d’Alembert initiated was enormous—it remains at the bedrock on which the Lagrangian mechanics, and hence the Hamiltonian mechanics, and hence all the mathematical formulations of the mainstream quantum mechanics rest (or, at any rate, at least these do: Schrodinger’s, Dirac’s, Feynman’s). Even then, it’s clear that d’Alembert’s work is only a repackaging of Newton’s mechanics—though not as unimportant as being just a footnote to it (as some have argued).

I do believe that Bell’s theorem is something similar. It might encapsulate an enormously useful shift of a perspective, but it is nothing more than that—a shift of a viewpoint. The thing that is being viewed is still the same—our good old quantum mechanics. It’s still just a repackaging of the same theory. And so are the experimental works connected more specifically with only Bell’s theorem.

In contrast, I do think that the Nobel committee has done an exceptionally great job in picking up these two people, who, by way of mere technical classification, come from the same broad field: quantum optics.

From whatever I have found about their work so far, the committee seems to have done a wonderful job right up to the order in which their names appear—if the order is significant in any way. Reason? While studying the interaction of particles matter and light at the single particle level, there obviously are only two choices: choose matter as the main object of the study, or choose light. In between the two, choosing photons is more audacious. Why? Since photons obey the Bose statistics, they are, following the mainstream QM, “indistinguishable” entities. Which is unlike the fermions. To think of according an indistinguishable particle, a mere “quantized normal mode,” the status of a first-class object would have required, I guess, a slightly more audacious thought process. That’s why. Of course, if at all so fine a distinction at all matters anywhere in the ingenuity of their whole research programs!

Anyway, congratulations, Dr. Haroche and Dr. Wineland! Your researches obviously lie at the metaphorical cross-roads of so many different things; it can be described by multiple attributes like: long-range in terms of the overall design of research program, refined and inspired in terms of its execution, painstaking and ingenious in terms of experimental design, stunning in terms of the kind of results that have been obtained, and definitely promising in terms of the potential impact of the findings in the long-range future. Why, forget the watchmakers, there wouldn’t be a single quantum computing guy who would fail to acknowledge your precedence.

And, your research programs have not been too concerned with getting a good press, a policy which seems to have been effectively maintained over many long years. Well done!

Congratulations, again!

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BTW, I noticed that Dr. Wineland has a BS from Berkeley. … It only goes on to show that no matter what kind of educational background you come from, if you are good and persistent and continuously engaged in improving yourself, then, one day, you will surely succeed!

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Last Sunday, I appeared for an interview for a professor’s post in a college affiliated with the University of Pune, but the interview got aborted out of the same, old, tiresome, metallurgy-vs-mechanical issue. A separate post is due.

Yes, I still go jobless.

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A Song I Don’t Like:
Since I go jobless, the section on a song I like was simply out of the question. So, I thought of adding this alternative section, which will be included on an irregular basis henceforth so long as I go without a job. It will mention the songs I don’t like. In fact, these are among the songs I never liked. Here is a song which falls into that category. I liked nothing about it—neither the audio nor the video. Neither the words nor the music nor the settings nor the choreography nor the actress nor her gestures nor her expressions nor the movie (which I haven’t watched, obviously) nor… you get the idea. Indeed, if you think that here is a song I hate, you wouldn’t be too off the mark. …

And the song is:
(Hindi) “mere haathon mein nau nau chuDiyaan…”

(BTW, in such a section, for the songs I don’t like, for obvious reasons, I won’t bother to find out and provide all the “credit”s.)

[First published on October 10, 2012, 6:50 PM IST. Streamlined a bit and updated (with just a few additions) on October 11, 2012, 1:45 PM IST. Another minor revision, on October 12, 2012, 6:15 PM IST. I guess I will now really leave it as is, regardless of grammatical errors etc.]