To anyone who has been living under a rock recently or has been blessed with a class schedule that doesn’t lead into Barus and Holley, let me fill you in on what’s happened: Our own Professor of Physics J. Michael Kosterlitz recently won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physics. It’s a big deal. A BIG DEAL.
Of course, why it’s a big deal changes depending on whom you ask. Some people have told me it’s because he’s only Brown’s eighth Nobel laureate, placing him in the upper echelons of exclusivity. Others point to his groundbreaking and exemplary work in condensed matter physics, specifically in two-dimensional phase transitions. One kid just rolled his eyes at me when I asked and said, “Dude, it's like, THE Nobel Prize.”
Indeed. The Nobel Prize is a lot like the Oscars, except with a bit more science and a lot more Swedes. Started by Alfred Nobel, of dynamite fame, the award is considered by many as the pinnacle of scientific achievement. The average $1.2 million payout certainly doesn’t hurt either.
So really, why do the headlines pick up on this brand of prestige while glossing over others? Roughly 625 scientists — again mostly Swedes — get together and decide what is and is not laudable. There’s a somewhat open nomination process, but decisions mostly happen behind closed doors. Rules surrounding the recognition are also arbitrary; a Nobel Prize cannot be awarded posthumously, which leads to mass panic if a winner happens to kick the bucket too early (as has happened a few times).
What about Provost Richard Locke P’17, who won the inaugural Progress Medal and promised to contribute to endowed scholarships at Brown and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology? There’s Lauren Redniss ’96, whose MacArthur “genius” grant wasn’t even publicized by News from Brown. (To Redniss: I’ve got a copy of “Radioactive.” I sobbed. Hard.) My problem is not with the incredibly talented people whose discoveries arguably justify the accolades and funds they win. My problem is with people who honor these awards at face value, celebrating their prestige without even considering the implications behind such recognition.
The Nobel Prize, for one reason or another, carries with it an incredible and disproportionate legacy. Youyou Tu won the 2015 Nobel in Physiology or Medicine for her work in fighting malaria with foundations in Traditional Chinese Medicine, opening up dialogue on non-Western channels of treatment. The 2008 prize in the same category was given to Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier, effectively ending a decades-long debate on who had truly discovered HIV in the heart of the AIDS epidemic. The prize sways public opinion, rather than the other way around. It gets the final say.
The Nobel Prize has become capital in and of itself, as the name carries a value perhaps even greater than the cash award. That’s perhaps partially why public opinion celebrated Kosterlitz’s achivement with a front-page story in The Herald, a News from Brown feature, a champagne toast and even a campus-wide email from President Christina Paxson P’19 herself. Never mind that the man of honor was outside the country at the time.
It is, for risk of sounding like a cynic, critical to analyze the political and socioeconomic spheres that shape awards and how we treat them because doing so improves our own understanding of the work. I realize how quintessentially Brown that sounds, but it’s true. People should critique President Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize for being received so early in his presidential career. Even now, people should be asking why the Nobel Prize committee decided to award Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos this year’s Peace Prize when his nation had days before voted against a potentially historic peace deal.
That’s why I’m glad there’s a picture next to Kosterlitz’s giant face in the lobby of Barus and Holley that tries to explain his work, even though most of us will go through into the next age of quantum computing without fully understanding his significant contributions. To be fair, it is pretty complicated. I’m still not sure I understand the physics even with the sailboat and bagel analogies made to explain it. But I’m happy they tried. Isn’t that the real point of awards?