In case you have been living in a hole and somehow missed it, the 2013 Nobel Prize was just awarded to Francois Englert and Peter Higgs, for their contributions to the theory of the Higgs field, supported by experimental evidence from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in March this year.
As usual, whenever somebody gets a prize, everybody else has to complain about the obvious flaws in the prize-giving process (and perhaps even the whole concept of prizes in physics). For example, it seems unfair that virtually no recognition goes to the huge team of experimentalists that actually did the dirty work at the LHC. This effect is basically the reversal of the adage `one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic’, whereby one contributor is a superstar but a thousand contributors is a faceless entity that you can’t stick a badge on. This basic observation about our limited ability to relate to large numbers of people at once is nothing more than a special case of the law of inverse Ninjutsu.
There is also the question of who, exactly, is to credit for the theory that predicted the March 2013 discovery. Increasingly, theoretical physics is also becoming more of a social enterprise, where no single discovery is the sole work of a single contributor. If you don’t believe me, just read any account of the history of the Higgs mechanism (like this or this) and try to make sense of who exactly was the main contributor in the long and intricate path of developments that led to the model. It seems many of the likely candidates were eliminated solely because they already had prizes.
Giving prizes as a means of rewarding good performance makes sense in situations in which there are well-defined individuals or groups that are competing with each other for the prize, or for something directly connected to the prize. A good example is competitive sports, where the winner might be an individual or an entire basketball team, but where each competitor has a distinct identity and brand name and all teams are unequivocally pitted against each other.
In science, the individuals or groups of people involved frequently don’t identify themselves as distinct competing entities but exist in an interwoven network of collaborations. Often there is competition on certain issues, but only within the context of the overarching mutual goal of adding to a larger body of knowledge. Furthermore, most scientists don’t connect their motivation for doing science with the possibility of gaining recognition or winning prizes, so there is a disparity between the (largely unquantifiable) goals of the scientists and the criteria for awarding the prizes.
But to criticize prizes like Nobel (or better yet, Yuri Milner’s controversial Fundamental Physics Prize) along these lines might be missing the point. Sure, these prizes are marketed as being `rewards’ — but if the purpose of a reward is to promote a well-defined activity, then they arguably fail at this task. In practice, these prizes serve a quite different purpose: they draw the attention of the public to science; they provide the public with celebrities that embody the work of an entire field; they create heroes and publicity and generate much needed interest in what us crazy scientists are getting up to. Yes, the selection of our celebrity spokesmen to the world is largely arbitrary, but that is the nature of the beast; in the arts, too, an entire career can turn on scoring a lucky gig. Prizes like the Nobel are less about rewarding individuals for specific tasks and much more about celebrating the progress of the whole field and sharing the excitement of scientific discovery with the public. The particular names that happen to get attached to these discoveries are largely incidental – but they need to be there, because it’s easier to love science if you can give it a face and a voice.