A Wonderful Life

Over the coming week 2016’s slate of Nobel Laureates will be announced. These are the Academy Awards of science; it is not the only prize scientists can win (and others, such the ShawGruber and Kavli prizes, are financially competitive) but only the Nobel is simply “the Prize”. 

Ironically, while we lionise the Nobelists, contenders are often separated by the slimmest of margins. For instance, the idea of the Higgs boson was independently conceived three times over the summer of 1964; by Higgs himself; a team of two, and another team of three, who all published their results in the same journal. The Prize was awarded 49 years later, after the Higgs particle was finally discovered at CERN. The statutes of the Nobel Foundation stipulate that no more than three individuals may share a single Prize. In this case the award went to Higgs himself, and François Englert, the surviving member of the twosome. While the three-handed paper had been the last to appear, it arguably provided the most complete description of the underlying idea – but unfortunately there is no “highly commended” in Stockholm.

Near-simultaneous discoveries and fights over priority are common: many Nobel announcements are followed by suggestions that someone else should have been in the spotlight, ranging from bitterly angry to wry “woulda, coulda, shoulda” reflections on roads not followed to their logical end. But what you almost never hear, even as we argue about who did the work, is that the topic itself was unworthy of a Nobel. 

This situation suggests that most breakthroughs are not made by transcendent individuals running far ahead of their colleagues, but occur when the field has matured to a point where the discoveries become possible and even inevitable. Consequently, many (but by no means all) Nobel prizes effectively mark a major advance in human understanding which attaches itself to a handful of talented but undoubtedly fortunate scientists. 

Within physics, this dilemma is particularly sharp, as many big experimental discoveries are made by teams with a thousand members or more. This year’s front-runner, the discovery of gravitational waves by LIGO, is surely in this category – pre-Prize speculation is focussing on which three people will get the famous phonecall, rather then whether LIGO itself will be recognised.

It would seem that the more effective the overall scientific enterprise, the more rapidly it will generate discoveries. Maybe we should have prizes for those who contribute the most to the health of the scientific community, in the spirit of  Jimmy Stewart’s character from It’s A Wonderful Life, an apparently unremarkable man whose decency and kindness quietly underpins the collective happiness of his town of Bedford Falls. Call it the George Bailey Prize for the inspirational teachers and generous mentors.

It’s A Wonderful Life hinges on Bailey being shown how world looks without him, allowing him to understand the value of his contribution and how much it would have been missed. On the other side of the coin, astronomy and astrophysics are having their own Bailey moment. Far from achieving the quiet contentment of Bedford Falls, our fields have experienced several major harassment scandals over the last two years, including those which led to Geoff Marcy’s 2015 departure from Berkeley and the suspension of LIGO-affiliated Caltech scientist, Christian Ott. Many good people have left our community because of the treatment they have received within it from harassers like Marcy and Ott; their potential contributions unquantified, unrecognised, unfulfilled – and there is no trainee angel at hand to reveal to us the scale of the loss.

Just as we may not always recognise our George Baileys, we have been unwilling or unable to take decisive action against individuals whose poor behaviour disrupts the careers of those around them. As scientists, we know in our bones that there are no second chances if you plagiarise or fabricate results. We condemn these transgressions because they undermine the foundations of our shared enterprise: we can’t make progress if we can’t trust our colleagues to produce fact and not fiction. The serial harassers, bullies and bigots in our profession destroy careers and derail the hopes and ambitions of their students; their trail of damage can be deep and decades-long. We should recognise that harassers inflict the same harm as the fakers and thieves, and treat them accordingly. 

That said, the Nobel announcements highlight much of what is best about our ongoing quest to make sense of the universe – whoever wins will have done work that is truly astonishing.  If Nobelists have one unifying trait it is their willingness to upend their particular corner of the world, rather than to take the status quo for granted. But one way to make a difference in science is to make science itself different, and to ensure that we build communities in which everyone with something to contribute can thrive.  And if we do that, there is every reason to believe that science itself will do better.