Why Ein­stein would never win a No­bel Prize now

Arab News - - OPINION - NIDHAL GUESSOUM | SPE­CIAL TO ARAB NEWS

One man in a lab­o­ra­tory stands no chance against to­day’s ‘big sci­ence’ projects funded by gov­ern­ments, cor­po­ra­tions and the mil­i­tary — but the quest for knowl­edge should not be a quest for dom­i­nance.

THE No­bel Prize in Physics was awarded last week to three sci­en­tists for “de­ci­sive con­tri­bu­tions to the ob­ser­va­tion of grav­i­ta­tional wave.” Rainer Weiss, one of the re­cip­i­ents, said: “I view this more as a thing that rec­og­nizes the work of about 1,000 peo­ple, a re­ally ded­i­cated ef­fort that’s been going on for — I hate to tell you — as long as 40 years.”

In­deed, most of the re­cip­i­ents of the No­bel Prize in Physics in re­cent years were lead­ers of big col­lab­o­ra­tions, some­times con­sist­ing of thou­sands of sci­en­tists, not to men­tion the thou­sands of tech­ni­cians and staff at huge fa­cil­i­ties such as the 27km CERN ac­cel­er­a­tor un­der Geneva, where the Higgs bo­son was dis­cov­ered a few years ago.

This “big team” as­pect led Martin Rees, the Bri­tish As­tronomer Royal and one of the most prom­i­nent as­tro­physi­cists in the world, to com­ment shortly after the an­nounce­ment: “The fact that the No­bel com­mit­tee re­fuses to make group awards is of course caus­ing them in­creas­ingly fre­quent prob­lems, and giv­ing a mis­lead­ing and un­fair im­pres­sion of how a lot of sci­ence is ac­tu­ally done.”

In­deed, the No­bel Prize rules stip­u­late that only three liv­ing per­sons can share the award in any year, thus rul­ing out big teams, as well as de­ceased prime con­trib­u­tors such as Ron­ald Dr­ever, who had made sem­i­nal con­tri­bu­tions to the dis­cov­ery of grav­i­ta­tional waves but died a few months ago.

Rees is right: ev­ery­one must re­al­ize that sci­ence to­day is of­ten done in ways very dif­fer­ent from a cen­tury ago, when the No­bel Prize was in­sti­tuted. And this is im­por­tant not just for awards, but even more for how projects are built and re­search is con­ducted.

His­to­ri­ans of sci­ence have noted that the Sec­ond World War and the Cold War ut­terly trans­formed sci­en­tific re­search into what is now la­beled “big sci­ence.” In the sec­ond half of the 20th cen­tury, sci­ence came to be heav­ily funded by gov­ern­ments, the mil­i­tary or cor­po­ra­tions. Big sci­ence takes place when big bud­gets are given to large national projects, such as the atomic bomb, radar devel­op­ment, ac­cel­er­a­tors, pow­er­ful lasers, and the hu­man genome pro­ject. These re­quire big teams, they use vast lab­o­ra­to­ries with large ma­chines and so­phis­ti­cated equip­ment that no one per­son can op­er­ate, and they aim to de­liver a spe­cific prod­uct. More­over, many projects now keep their data hid­den from ev­ery­one else, at least for a time. Gone, then, is the old ro­man­tic pic­ture of a sci­en­tist pur­su­ing knowl­edge for its own sake.

This goal-driven re­search has led to the of­fi­cials’ and the pub­lic’s reg­u­lar ques­tion­ing of the va­lid­ity of “ba­sic,” fun­da­men­tal sci­ence, which has no ob­vi­ous im­me­di­ate ap­pli­ca­tion. “What ben­e­fit does that bring us?” we of­ten hear.

This at­ti­tude can be dan­ger­ous for sev­eral rea­sons. First, it sub­verts sup­port for pure sci­en­tific re­search and some­one like Ein­stein, who rarely pro­duced pa­pers with col­lab­o­ra­tors and never asked him­self: “What ben­e­fit would this idea have?” would not sur­vive in this kind of re­search cli­mate. Sec­ondly, small coun­tries and small uni­ver­si­ties would not be able to pur­sue their own re­search agen­das — they would need to be part of big sci­ence teams. Last but not least, it would skew the view of the pub­lic, who would con­sider en­deav­ors such as send­ing a probe to Mars, or de­tect­ing waves from two black holes that merged more than a bil­lion light years away, as ut­terly use­less and un­wor­thy of fund­ing.

We need to ac­cept and sup­port all kinds of sci­ence: big sci­ence, small sci­ence, even cit­i­zen sci­ence, the par­tic­i­pa­tion of am­a­teurs and the gen­eral pub­lic in projects that re­quire lots of time and te­dious tasks — such as tak­ing thou­sands of space pho­to­graphs to de­ter­mine whether any of them show a slight change, thus per­haps in­di­cat­ing the ex­is­tence of a planet or the pas­sage of an as­teroid. In­volv­ing the pub­lic, par­tic­u­larly schools, will guar­an­tee sup­port for sci­ence gen­er­ally, not just the prac­ti­cal, di­rect-ben­e­fit kind.

We need to re­open sci­ence and the quest for knowl­edge as widely as pos­si­ble. A pos­i­tive trend is the grow­ing num­ber of projects that pledge to make their data avail­able to the whole world as soon as it has been val­i­dated by in­ter­nal checks. An­other pos­i­tive devel­op­ment is the in­sis­tence by sev­eral fund­ing agen­cies and foun­da­tions that at least a small part of the bud­get for a re­search pro­ject be spent on pub­lic out­reach.

It is in­deed ex­tremely im­por­tant to keep so­ci­ety abreast of all sci­en­tific ac­tiv­ity and de­vel­op­ments and not cre­ate a chasm be­tween sci­en­tists and the rest of the world.

Sci­ence has been chang­ing fast, in ways that re­quire us to be alert and re­ac­tive, lest so­ci­ety wake up one day and find that the quest for knowl­edge has turned into a quest for dom­i­nance by gov­ern­ments and the mil­i­tary, and for profit by cor­po­ra­tions.

QNid­hal Guessoum is a pro­fes­sor of physics and as­tron­omy at the Amer­i­can Univer­sity of Shar­jah, UAE. Twit­ter: @Nid­halGues­soum

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