Wednesday, October 26, 2016

A Deserving Nobel in Physics Missed Again

History of Science
Environmental & Science Education
by Edward Hessler

The announcement of theNobel awards are invariably bittersweet especially when those who know, specialists in the various award areas, point out very deserving candidates who were overlooked. Some have been overlooked for years.
By the way, I am not disappointed with the selection of Bob Dylan for his award in literature. Joan Baez noted that emerging talent long ago in her haunting love song, Diamonds and Rust. On the other hand there are many writers -- prose and poetry -- who were overlooked.  The world is a big place and there are fine writers in countries, most of whom we've never read or heard of but probably should.
Most of the winners in the sciences are invariably men and we need reminders, prods about the contributions of the so-called other half: women.  Physics, for example, has made significant progress because of ground-breaking work by women, most of whom have worked against the odds -- the system and the workplace.
Sabine Hossenfelder
This year (2016) was no different. Men again (in ALL areas). I have no intention of distracting from their accomplishments. It was painful to learn of a candidate who was passed over again. Sabine Hossenfelder is a theoretical physicist at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies. (She is also known as Bee.) She wrote about this on her first-rate blog, Backreaction.
Bee's blog, if I may, is mainly for physicists. Sometimes I understand (some of) it; sometimes I don't but she is a favorite who explains well and with spirit, a book reviewer, insightful and provocative commenter on new papers and more, including writing about her growing children.
I make no attempt to explain the concept of back reaction. Even the next few words might lead you astray! It has to do with an effect on gravity due to long-range gravitational interactions, a very fertile field for theoreticians.
Hossenfelder wrote, "Another year has passed and Vera Rubin was not awards the Nobel Prize. She's 88 and the prize can't be awards posthumously, so I can't shake the impression the Royal Academy is waiting for her to die while they work off a backlog of condensed-matter breakthroughs."
I first learned about Rubin from a Carnegie Institution pamphlet. From an early age she was fascinated by the night sky. Rubin was the only astronomy major to graduate from Vassar, was denied admission to Princeton for graduate studies because of Princeton's policy of not accepting women, so went to Cornell instead and worked with some notables (Philip Morrison, Richard Feynman and Hans Bethe), then off to Georgetown for her Ph.D. with George Gamow, another renowned physicist.
Fritz Zwicky was the first to notice that a cluster of galaxies rotated faster than their visible mass. It was Rubin who nailed the evidence that galaxies misbehave, i.e., the rotational velocities don't flatten at distance. Stars distant from the galactic center, even in the wispy tips rotate as fast as stars closer to the galactic center. Matter is missing -- not just a little, either. It turns out that some 80% of all the matter in the universe cannot be accounted for. That material is known as dark matter, a term coined by Zwicky.
It is still not known what this stuff is all about. Some physicists talk about their embarrassment by not being able to explain this. One day, though, they will.
Vera Rubin
In her post lamenting the overlooking of Vera Rubin, Dr. Hossenfelder wrote about one of the possibilities for dark matter other than WIMPS, axions (always sounds like a detergent to me), neutralinos, etc. She raises the question and then like a theoretician pursues it: what if dark matter isn't a particle?
I must add a note on how science is conducted. Theoretical physicists do not make stuff up. This is not what theoretical means. Bee wrote a splendid post on whether you can make up anything you want in theoretical physics. No! She noted that theoreticians are contrained by a long record of data, very precise data. There is also a rule (unwritten but practiced and enforced) that it must be mathematical, the language of physics and one of the reasons that most of us don't understand physics at this level. We don't know the language and other languages can't map it one-for-one. To do physics, you have to be able to sling maths like a short order breakfast cook breaks eggs.
Dr. Rubin has been recognized by the scientific community, e.g., election to the National Academy of Sciences as well as receiving the National Medal of Science. Still, she is a deserving Nobelist and I wish this year's award were otherwise.
If you wonder what has motivated Rubin, the short answer is that she did. She is an autonomous learner. In one of the links above Steven Soter and Neil deGrasse Tyson call attention to her drive with a powerful quote: "We have peered into a new world and have seen that it is more mysterious and more complex than we had imagined. Still more mysteries of the universe remain hidden.  Their discovery awaits the adventurous scientists of the future. I like it this way." [emphasis added]
The answer of a scientist.
h/t Dr. Sabine Hossenfelder aka Bee

No comments:

Post a Comment