In a survey of some 100 years of physics Nobel prizes, Tony Hey is impressed by the overall far-sightedness of the selectors
Alfred Nobel was born in Stockholm in 1833, and in the early 1860s he set up a small factory to manufacture nitroglycerine, a newly discovered explosive. A few years later, Nobel invented a method of mixing nitroglycerine with another material to reduce its volatility. The new explosive was called dynamite and was soon widely used in the building of roads, canals and railways. On his death in 1896, Nobel's business empire included more than 90 factories across Europe. In his will, he set up a fund to reward outstanding contributions in the sciences of physics, chemistry and physiology or medicine, as well as in literature and peace.
The prizes for physics and chemistry are awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and the first Nobel prizes were awarded in December 1901. In 2003, each prize was worth about $1.3 million (£740,000), making it one of the most valuable and coveted awards in science.
Mauro Dardo's book is about the Nobel prizes for physics from their inception in 1901 until the present. His account begins with a review of the state of classical physics at the end of the 19th century, which is followed by a decade-by-decade survey of new physics discoveries. Brief biographies of each prizewinner are included, and Dardo enlivens the text with anecdotes and reminiscences. Although it is easy to quibble with some of the fine detail, the book succeeds magnificently in presenting the remarkable advances made in our understanding of the physical world in the course of the past century. Unlike a standard textbook, Dardo presents a chronological picture that illustrates well the confusing process of physics discovery.
In the first half of the 20th century, we see how difficult it was for the Swedish committee, initially "dominated by experimentalists from Uppsala University", to discern lasting achievements from among the puzzles of the early days of relativity and quantum theory. We also see the pivotal role of the personalities of the five members of the physics committee, with most decisions taken for good reason, but on occasion swayed by prejudice or rivalry. The process seems to have settled down in the second half of the century, with prizes being awarded not only for advances in elementary particle physics but also for discoveries in the fields of astrophysics and the solid state.
From this year-by-year account, another trend clearly emerges - the decline of German science from its once pre-eminent position in Europe. The Nazis'
rise to power led to the promulgation of anti-Semitic and racial laws not only in Germany but across most of Europe, resulting in a flood of refugee physicists and their families. In the US, the university physics community had already begun to grow rapidly, but it was further enhanced, as Dardo says, "by a colossal infusion of intellectual power and creativity". Enrico Fermi, Emilio Segr and Hans Bethe were three Nobel prizewinners forced to flee Europe because of their Jewish connections; curiously, Nobel prizewinner Victor Hess, discoverer of cosmic rays, was apparently dismissed by the Nazis "on account of his devotion to Roman Catholicism". Philipp Lenard, Nobel prizewinner in 1905 for his work on cathode rays, and Johannes Stark, winner in 1919, became devoted members of the Nazi party and denigrated Einstein's theories of relativity as "Jewish physics". Max von Laue, winner in 1914 for his discovery of X-ray diffraction, was the only member of the Prussian Academy of Sciences to protest when Einstein was forced to resign.
Besides describing the physics, Dardo gives tantalising details about the battles within the physics committee and the Swedish Academy. In 1903, the committee wished to award the prize for the discovery of radioactivity to Antoine Becquerel and Pierre Curie, nominated by Henri Poincare and other members of the French Academy of Sciences. However, Magnus Gosta Mittag-Leffler, a Swedish mathematician, intervened by writing personally to Pierre Curie asking for his opinion. Curie replied that he very much wished "to be considered together with Madame Curie with respect to our work on radioactive bodies". The Curies shared the prize with Becquerel.
In 1908, Ernest Rutherford was awarded the chemistry Nobel prize for his outstanding work on the disintegration and transmutation of elements. In his Nobel speech, he remarked that he had observed many transformations in his life, but none as quick as "his own transformation in one moment from a physicist to a chemist". Apparently, the chemistry committee had wished to assert its right to make awards in the area of radioactivity and "the physicists had been tricked into handing over their best candidate".
In the same year, the physics committee, on the basis of a report by the chemical physicist Svante Arrhenius, decided to award the prize to Max Planck for his pioneering work on quantum theory. Despite this decision already having been reported in the press, Mittag-Leffler managed to persuade the plenary session of the Swedish Academy to defer Planck and award the prize to Gabriel Lippman instead for his invention of a new form of colour photography. Dardo reports that "Mittag-Leffler had the satisfaction of seeing Arrhenius (his eternal rival) go down to defeat".
Among the more surprising Nobel prizes was the 1912 award to Gustaf Dalen, then managing director of the Gas Accumulator Company in Stockholm, for his invention of an automatic sun valve to regulate gaslights such as those used in buoys or un-manned lighthouses. The physics committee had wanted to award the prize to Heike Kamerlingh Onnes for his achievement in liquefying helium, but the academy, inspired by the engineers and convinced that the prizes had become too theoretical, rebelled.
Then, of course, there was the refusal of the committee to award Einstein a prize for relativity - on the strength of a report by ophthalmologist Allvar Gullstrand, who claimed that "neither the general nor the special theory of relativity warranted a Nobel prize". However, a young theoretical physicist from Uppsala University called Carl Oseen was asked for a report on Einstein's 1905 paper on the photoelectric effect. His report was favourable, so Einstein was awarded the deferred 1921 prize. But in 1930 Oseen was reluctant to acknowledge Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrodinger's new quantum theory and, until his death in 1944, Oseen was able to block any award to Wolfgang Pauli for his discovery of the exclusion principle, claiming it was merely a "philosophical construction".
There is much more of interest in this book. Perhaps as interesting as the winners are the physicists who surely deserved the prize but were never selected. Rudolf Peierls, George Rochester and Clifford Butler, Freeman Dyson and the redoubtable Fred Hoyle spring immediately to mind, but this book will provide plenty of ammunition for many a fine argument. On balance, I am impressed by how much the physics committee got right.
Tony Hey is vice-president for technical computing, Microsoft, and professor of computation, Southampton University.
Nobel Laureates and Twentieth-Century Physics
Author - Mauro Dardo
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 533
Price - £70.00 and £.99
ISBN - 0 521 83247 0 and 54008 9