The Nobel Prize in Physics 2019 was awarded “for contributions to our understanding of the evolution of the universe and Earth’s place in the cosmos” with one half to James Peebles “for theoretical discoveries in physical cosmology”, the other half jointly to Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz “for the discovery of an exoplanet orbiting a solar-type star.” It recognised the endeavours to impart us ‘New perspectives on our place in the universe’.

While the former awardee’s cited work pertains to physical cosmology and deals with a mathematical model of the evolving Universe, involving a lot of mathematical tools and original theoretical calculations, the second half of the prize, shared by the latter two is awarded to commend a non-theoretical, non-paradigmatic discovery, in which the calculations involved were all applications of the existent scientific paradigms, and is merely an instance of objective novelty.

To use a maritime exploratory analogy, Peebles’ pioneering work is tantamount to Magellan’s voyage (which, when coupled with Eratosthenes’ work, proved that the Earth was round) while Mayor and Queloz’s discovery is akin to  Naddodd‘s discovery of Iceland. A closer, less metaphorical analogy would be Darwin’s theorisation of Natural Selection and someone’s discovery of a new species of mite.

Peebles’ discoveries attempted to come up with a holistic and dynamic model of the Universe, and ended up showing that by all means, in our current theoretic framework and corpus of knowledge, certain observations about the Universe just don’t add up, and there’s a lot that is missing – unknown, unexplained and unaccounted for. This unattributed content that makes up some 95% of the Universe is hypothesised to be what’s known as Dark Matter and Dark Energy. The fundamental nature and grand-design scale of their discoveries find precedent in the groundbreaking works of Fellow Laureates as Hideki (who predicted the existence of mesons), Penzias & Wilson (who discovered the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation) and Cronin & Fitch (who discovered violations of symmetry principles in meson decay) as well as that of the Japanese triad in 2008 (for their discovery of origins of broken symmetry).

On the other hand, we have Mayor and Queloz’s discovery of the first planet orbiting a Sun-like star outside our Solar System. 51 Pegasi b is a close-orbiting, hot, gaseous ball, roughly comparable to Jupiter. Since their pioneering, rousing discovery, over 4000 exoplanets have been discovered. It bears relevance to exobiology and humanity’s eternal quest for extraterrestrial life.  Although it wasn’t the first exoplanet discovery, it was the first exoplanet that orbited a star similar to our Sun, and was significant because a Gas-Giant was found orbiting close to the star, whereas in our own Solar System all four Gas-Giants are cold and distant. It piqued astronomers by showing that discovering not-so-far-flung ‘Hot-Jupiters’ is not-so-far-flung an idea, and gave a new course to the quest for exoplanets.  With all due credit and veneration to the duo’s discovery, and withstanding the exciting avenues their painstaking endeavours flung open for future generations of observers, their discovery contributed little, if any original insight into the existing corpus of theoretical knowledge and underlying principles of astronomy. The discovery was an exercise of novelty neither in principle, nor in method. The scientists used stellar spectroscopy (observing the spectrum of light or radiation emitted by the star, a technique that’s been around since the 1930s). They used a sensitive spectroscope to note the subtle but regular changes in the velocity of spectral lines of the starlight caused by the gravitational influence of the giant, close-orbiting planet.  In retrospect, its only contribution to theory was it provoking a revision of erstwhile planet formation theories.

The citation for the award to Nils Gustaf Dalen reads “for his invention of automatic valves designed to be used in combination with gas accumulators in lighthouses and buoys”.  Charles Thomas Reese Wilson was awarded “for his method of making the paths of electrically charged particles visible by condensation of vapour”. Later PMS Blackett was awarded, in part, for methodically developing and procedurally refining Wilson’s Cloud Chamber. Edward Victor Appleton received the laurel “for his investigations of the physics of the upper atmosphere especially for the discovery of the so-called Appleton layer”. Note that the prize has occasionally been awarded for inventions, mostly for electronic components, but also a few times for the creation of useful instruments of scientific study.

Mayor and Queloz’s astronomical discovery draws us to another discovery of astronomical proportions. Meghnad Saha developed the Saha Ionization Equation, which describes the physical and chemical conditions in Stars. Saha, born in rural destitution, and a participant in the Indian freedom movement, came to be a student of the likes of JC Bose and PC Ray, and a college-peer of SN Bose and Jnan Ghosh. Saha’s work formed the cornerstone of modern stellar spectroscopy – the tool that wholly accounts for Mayor and Queloz’s award-winning discovery in 1995. Such is Saha’s legacy that his surname has been typecast into a verb – a rare feat even for the most prominent and celebrated of scientists. “To Saha” and “To Saha Correctly” are phrases frequently employed by astrophysicists during spectroscopy. Saha’s keen assimilatory tour-de-force is a carefully crafted equation that is the result of treading cautiously in assumptions and being experienced in multiple fields. Saha’s equation provides a means to ascertain the ionisation states of the various elements composing the star by knowing its temperature, which in turn is determined by studying its spectrum. The Saha equation describes the degree of ionization for any gas in thermal equilibrium as a function of the temperature, density, and ionization energies of the atoms.

Saha was nominated for the physics prize by Dehendra Bose and Sisir Mitra in 1930, by Arthur Compton in 1937, by Mitra again in 1939, by Compton again in 1940, and by Mitra again in 1951* and 1955, before passing away in February 1956.

In 1917, a financially-challenged Saha was notified that the paper he had sent to the Astrophysical Journal delineating his findings, could not be published unless he himself bore some of the printing expenses, which was just not possible for him at the time. He was thus compelled to seek an ulterior avenue for its publication. He then published it in the Journal of the Department of Science at Calcutta University, which reportedly “had no circulation worth mentioning”.  It is quite possible that the insignificant reach and impact of the journal he was published in, led to his finding escaping popular notice and due recognition. However, a number of contemporaries built on his findings years later, and only ever acknowledged him in the footnotes and margins.

His predicament was threefold – His discovery’s scope was unintentionally downplayed and limited to astrophysics, when in fact, it had great consequences in high-energy physics in general, being rooted in quantum mechanics, he was seldom credited in publications that built upon his work, and Langmuir was often unintentionally miscredited for his entire work. Some sources explain the Nobel Committee’s decision to not award him by stating that his work was deemed to be a “useful application”, but not a “discovery”, and that his work was only an extension of that of van’t Hoff while others state that his work had a shortcoming that was overcome in the works of later researchers. Umpteen counterexamples can be cited to rule out each of the arguments. Saha’s equation is huge, and only needed further refinement, not a correction as such. Moreover, had it been only a novel application of an existent paradigm, why was it unprecedented, when van’t Hoff’s equation had been around for over three decades? If it was mere instantiation, why did it take a Third-World man who was not quite a mathematician to simply instantiate or extrapolate an existent result when physics was considered to be almost finished at the dawn of the century (until Einstein came along and revolutionised it)? The sheer mathematical insight, and the condition-accounting that Saha had done was quite ingenious and not very intuitively conceivable. Given that Nobel Prizes in Physics explicitly lay a great deal of stress on “persistence of significance with time”, Saha’s equation only served to swell in importance and versatility of application, with the passage of time.

It is noteworthy that the Prize had been awarded on quite slippery premises earlier – Millikan of Millikan’s Oil-Drop Fame never presented all his observations, Hewish could not explain the Pulsar he had observed identifying the signals as communications from “Little Green Men” (implying extraterrestrials – the name was a joke, the misattribution to aliens wasn’t), and Fermi’s unwitting misinterpretation of his own discovery didn’t justify his accreditation as the Father of Fission. It took Fermi a good while to realise or rather get informed, that he had inadvertently discovered fission when he was missionarily pursuing discovery of new elements).

The Nobel Prize has had a history of being US-centric and Eurocentric. Deserving candidates beyond the First World White Male seem to be sidelined. SN Bose, Chung Yao-Chao, Cesar Lattes, Lise Meitner, Jocelyn Bell, EC George Sudarshan and a number of Russian scientists were left out and White, male anglophones who had subsequently built on their work were awarded instead. Of particular interest, is the case of Dr. ECG Sudarshan, whose work was initially derided by the same Nobel Awardee who later adopted and built upon it claiming the prize in 2005. The citation of this work was partly underwhelmed in the Nobel citation, presumably to avoid controversy. This was not the first time however, that someone had won the prize on Sudarshan’s plinth. It had already once happened in 1979. Either time, the works were outrageously and unmistakably similar. Dr. Sudarshan, like Saha was probably another victim of non-recognition owing to publication in a low-impact journal.

While I am none to evaluate, ratify or qualify the discoveries or deservances of these great minds, the double standards of the Nobel Committee as pertains its definition of ‘discovery’ are quite apparent. The intent is nowhere to discredit any of the laureates, whose prowess and contributions to civilisation remain far, far superior to any of our laymen endeavours, trivial quests and petty deeds. The objective here is to attempt to illustrate the inconsistency and occasional hypocrisy of the Nobel Prize awarding.

In its scale, and the overarchingness of its scheme, Meghnad Saha’s nominated works lie somewhere in between these two extremes of grand theoretical findings and finding a physical object-of-interest. It finds explicit parallels in American-German scientist Hans Albrecht Bethe’s award “for his contributions to the theory of nuclear reactions, especially his discoveries concerning the energy production in stars”, in that of Britons Martin Hyle and Antony Hewish “for their pioneering research in radio astrophysics: Ryle for his observations and inventions, in particular of the aperture synthesis technique, and Hewish for his decisive role in the discovery of pulsars”, in Indian-American S. Chandrasekhar’s “for his theoretical studies of the physical processes of importance to the structure and evolution of the stars”, and in the award to American physicists Hulse & Hooton Taylor Jr. “for the discovery of a new type of pulsar, a discovery that has opened up new possibilities for the study of gravitation”.

Further, American Raymond Davis Jr. and Japanese Masatoshi Koshiba  received the prize “for pioneering contributions to astrophysics, in particular for the detection of cosmic neutrinos”, while Italian-American Riccardo Giacconi was a recipient “for pioneering contributions to astrophysics, which have led to the discovery of cosmic X-ray sources”.

CV Raman, a privileged Tamil Brahmin, as a Nobel Awardee never bothered to either propose or  endorse Saha’s bid for the Prize, let alone aid or solicit help from his myriad Western peers and acquaintances in doing so. Caste disparity could have played a role in the ultraconservative-valued Raman (who otherwise did much to further the scientific cause in India, doing occasional favours to select individuals) having his reservations and indifference.

An article from the Indian Journal of History of Science offers great insights into the complicated state of affairs. The key takeaway is that Saha’s work was deemed as an application and not a ‘discovery’ in the true sense. However, putting the committee’s instance-specific and singular, specific-invention contexted awards both prior to and after Saha’s nominations, this justification seems a tad dubious. It mentions how First World powers made most of their nominations from their own respective countries, and how Raman and Saha had to write to the influential Niels Bohr to endorse their respective Nobel candidacy bids, the first one being affirmed.

Saha worked on Ionisation, followed by selective radiation pressure. His theories were broad and general in scope, something largely neglected in the report which sought to outline and test his contributions largely in astrophysics. In their report of Saha, the Committee observed that  Saha’s theory was not complete, it was further refined by various other scientists and that it was “deficient”, also noting that it gave deeper meaning to spectral clarification. Discussion on one of his works starts as “Saha has started with some definite, already for long time well-known facts about the appearance of spectral lines…”. The intent of the Nobel Committee is palpable in their tautology. It goes on to mention how certain scientists before and after Saha did their respective portions, and effectively narrows down Saha’s corpus of contributions, before outright downplaying his latter propositions as mere applications of his former, and competing and dwarfing the corollaries against the results! It is worth minding that it is the same body (albeit comprising of different members) who awarded a very specific type of valve,  commended the discovery of an ionised sublayer of the atmosphere and dished out two Nobels for creating an apparatus to visualise the path and trajectory of charged particles. It is the same Committee which awarded a minor improvement and rehash of P-representation in Quantum Optics.

Saha, hailing from a socially-backward class and caste, struggled to attain his academic status. He remained financially strained most of his life, in spite of the various important academic and administrative positions he held, and worked relentlessly and tirelessly for India’s freedom struggle, the furthering of the national science scene and various social causes. An ardent nationalist, and a devout social-servant, Saha was like the stars he studied – distant but bright and inspiring: cold on the outside, hot on the interior. Saha was mild-mannered, extremely gentle and polite, but zealous, driven and strongly-convicted, never bothering much for due recognition or felicitation. Theories in science can be true or false – what matters is them being consistent within themselves – That’s something the decision-takers on the Panel for the award of the Physics Nobel can perhaps learn from the discipline.

The author is a columnist, writer, journalist and amateur researcher, having previously written in over 40 newspapers and outlets in 22 countries.


SIGN UP FOR COUNTERCURRENTS DAILY NEWS LETTER


 

Comments are closed.