What’s ignoble about the Nobel Prize?

The MSM have ruled that the Nobel Prize of most interest in 2013 is the physics Prize awarded for discovery of the Higgs boson. I am going with the flow. It is certainly true that the hubbub surrounding the physics Prize was this year’s noisiest, what with laments over the researchers who were left out. Plus, of course, Peter Higgs’s elusiveness. His vanishing act rivals J.D. Salinger’s and therefore guarantees that, like Salinger, Higgs is omnipresent in his absence.

You can take a shortcut through the Higgs blather by consulting Knight Science Journalism Tracker Faye Flam, who describes the two best pieces of journalism about this year’s physics Prize. Those, she says, are Joel Achenbach’s at The Washington Post and Dennis Overbye’s at the New York Times (though she faults the latter’s metaphors.)

nobel physics medal


Flam also links to the op-ed by Sean Carroll, and I probably don’t need to point out that this is the physics Sean Carroll, not the biology one. He argues that 6 scientists really deserved the physics Prize this year, but didn’t all get it. Carroll made the same case at his own blog.  The problem is that the Nobel committee observes what Achenbach calls “The Rule of Three.” Only three scientists per Prize, please.

Achenbach expanded on that theme in his Post piece, and expanded further at his Achenblog. There he added material from interviews with the two living physicists who didn’t get the physics Prize. They discuss why not, and why it was Peter Higgs’s name that got attached to the theoretical boson.

Achenbach also plumps for dumping the no-posthumous-awards rule. I couldn’t agree more, and urge the Nobel committee to make it retroactive to at least 1962 so that Rosalind Franklin can get the public acknowledgment she deserves for showing that DNA had a helical structure. Without her X-ray crystallography, which they obtained without her knowledge, Watson and Crick would have continued to languish in Cambridge, fooling around with their (inaccurate) Tinker Toy models.

Rosalind Franklin's Photo 51, revealing the helical structure of DNA

Rosalind Franklin’s Photo 51, revealing the helical structure of DNA


At the Curious Wavefunction, Ashutosh Jogalekar echoes SciAm editors in urging that the Nobel awards stop being in thrall to the Great Man Theory of Science. The awards, they say, should be broadened to acknowledge how science has operated in the real world for many years: In groups. It’s teamwork that accomplishes science, the Higgs team of thousands of researchers being the quintessential example.

Jogalekar is talking about the experimental teams at CERN. He would get an argument from Quantum Diaries, the group blog about particle physics. Under the hed “2013 Nobel Prize — Made in America?” Ken Bloom declares that more than 2000 scientists in the US helped make the Higgs boson discovery possible.

LiveScience conducted what it said was a poll to see what prizes scientists think the Nobel committee should add. Topping the list was math, which surely makes sense, since math underlies science.

Next came technology and social science. These seem a lot iffier to me. Yes, technology has changed everything and keeps changing it every day. But “technology” is far too broad a term, being applicable to just about anything humans have thought up. And there’s an argument to be made that the social sciences–I have made it–need to get themselves on a much firmer scientific footing.  Other respondents said the existing categories should be maintained because they cover basic science, and all new discoveries flow out of them.

OTOH, how trustworthy is this “poll?” Who knows? LiveScience tells us nothing about how it was conducted. Nothing about the underlying math, for example. Or even anything about the social science of how respondents were selected.

Computer simulation of particle traces from an LHC collision in which a Higgs Boson is produced.  Credit: CERN

Computer simulation of particle traces from an LHC collision in which a Higgs Boson is produced. Credit: CERN


Whither particle physics?

A decade ago, former SciAm editor John Horgan put up a $1000 bet that by 2020, no unified Theory of Everything will have won a Nobel. He says belief in the unified theory is not a branch of science, it’s mathematical theology. At Cross-Check, Horgan reprises his argument that for particle physics, The End is Near. The Prize, he declares this time, is its last gasp.

For another cross-check, check out Adam Mann’s more dispassionate but still bearish piece at Wired. Physicists, Mann says, lack a roadmap of where to go next. One of them calls it “a very deep crisis.”


The noble and ignoble history of the Nobels and the Ig Nobels

For historical amusements related to the Nobel Prize, consult Mark Jackson’s guest blog at SciAm. There you will learn that only one laureate, physicist Andrew Geim, has won both the Nobel and the Ig Nobel.

Which reminds me that I somehow failed to take note last month of the Ig Nobel Prizes. (You know: “For achievements that first make people LAUGH, then make them THINK.”)  I guess this week is the most appropriate time to catch up. The 2013 Ig Nobel Physics Prize ignored the Higgs. It went to an international scientific team that showed that humans can walk on water. Can run on water, in fact. Provided the water is on the moon.


Obamacare, the government shutdown, the debt ceiling, etc., etc.

You may recall that just last week the Affordable Care Act (aka ACA and/or Obamacare) was the whole reason Republican right radicals refused to fund US government operations and so shut them down. They were grossed out by the socialist notion of health insurance for the uninsured, and getting rid of the ACA was their price for approving a federal budget.

Well, poof, in just a few days Obamacare had all but vanished as their issue. I’d call that weird, but I suppose it’s possible that even the GOP Jacobins finally got the message that the Democrats and the White House, which had been telling them for weeks they weren’t going to play that game, were in fact not going to play that game.

Now the issue is–who knows what the issue is?  At Wonkblog, Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas say at bottom it’s about taxes, and that seems as sensible an analysis as any.  There has been a new ostensible demand every few minutes, and so far each one has been met with a firm “No. Open the government, raise the debt ceiling, and then we’ll talk.”  At this point it appears that the radicals will settle for whatever, just so long as they can pretend they’ve won something. As I write, there is actual conversation between the parties, and so a ray of hope.  We’ll see.

colbert martin-stutzman


The health insurance web sites are still a problem

Meanwhile, the poor old ACA is still having a hellacious time getting its insurance web sites to function. But Obamacare opponents haven’t even been able to exploit that clear advantage because of all the Sturm und Drang they’ve created.

At Well, Robert Pear and Abby Goodnough are reporting that at least some of the state-run sites are doing better–running more smoothly, enrolling new customers–than the federally administered sites. But there are many more–36–of the latter.

A number of writers have weighed in on just what’s wrong. At Ars Technica, Sean Gallagher says the federal government’s IT structure is generally way behind the times, but implies that’s not the problem with the insurance sites.

Timothy Lee, writing under the hed “Here’s everything you need to know about Obamacare’s error-plagued websites” at The Switch, explains that the sites are trying to do a bunch of complicated things at once, many more than your average site.  Among the biggest challenges is that a site needs to find out whether each enrollee qualifies for a subsidy to pay part of the premium. That means coordinating with and querying various state and federal databases. He presents a chart illustrating the complexities, and there are many.

The initial problems, as I described here last week, were the result of overwhelming traffic. That has died down, and the government has bought more capacity, so the traffic jam is on the way to being solved. However, Lee says, the sites may also have design flaws, complicated by tight deadlines and a limited budget.

The Administration has promised fixes. I imagine, with so much at stake, that they are working frantically to make that happen. Which doesn’t necessarily mean that fixes will be accomplished as quickly as they hope. Lee points out that the new year will bring a new challenge, as freshly purchased insurance takes effect and Obamacare is truly in business. He says, “If insurance companies have correctly interfaced with the exchanges, then millions of newly-ensured patient will be able to get medical care. But implementation problems could prevent some patients from using the health insurance they’d signed up for.”

Something else to look forward to. Assuming we get through next week’s national crisis, the debt ceiling thing, making sure the executive branch has enough in the till to pay the expenses Congress has authorized.


Meantime, more shutdown fallout on science and medicine.

A sampling.

At the JAMA Forum, Larry Levitt summarizes Week 1 of Obamacare, concluding with a substantial list of unknowns. These appear to be known unknowns. We haven’t gotten to the unknown unknowns yet.  Also at JAMA, Bridget Kuehn describes some short- and long-term health effects of the government shutdown. One chilling example: developmental problems in children due to the loss of food aid and childcare programs.

Find the Health Wonk Review at Joe Paduda’s blog Managed Care Matters. I guess it’s a traditional blog carnival with posts from several contributors, but it’s not a carnival of fun. See pieces on just why some in Congress hate Obamacare, the shutdown’s impact on workplace health and safety, problems at the insurance exchanges, and many more.

Maryn McKenna has been tracking the salmonella outbreak at her blog Superbug. Here’s her first post, on October 7.  Here’s the October 10 post, after the CDC had called back some workers to cope with the outbreak.

Science has a string of posts about the shutdown’s impact on . . . science. Find takes on long-term effects, the Antarctic program, cell biology, astronomy, clinical trials, NASA, and more.


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