Gold for Light

The Nobel Prize in Physics was announced this morning, and it was awarded for discoveries leading to fibre optics and CCD’s – two inventions responsible for modern communications technology and the explosion in the ranks of amateur photographers. They have also enabled big science; observational astronomy/cosmology and particle physics could not exist in the 21st century without these contributions. The massive quantity of data produced in collisions at the LHC is transmitted around the world via light pulses in glass tubes for analysis. The Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDDS) uses thirty CCD chips to capture light from distant stars and galaxies.

Predicting the winner(s) of the Nobel Prize is notoriously difficult. I thought that this year’s prize might have been awarded to the KEK and SNO collaborations for providing the definitive evidence of neutrino oscillation. Physics has fragmented at an increasing rate in the last fifty years, and it must be difficult for the Nobel Committee to choose among the many sub-fields. As my research is focussed on theoretical topics, it’s easy to forget that science continues to shape the fabric of modern society – in this case, transforming the way people interact.

The prize is often criticized for recognizing decades-old research, for allowing politics to influence its decisions, and for its exclusivity to the living. I’d like to emphasize something good: for one week, it shoves science and those who devote their lives to it into the spotlight. It’s a refreshing alternative to The Big Bang Theory. Some of these scientists have lived through eventful times: nowadays, you don’t hear of graduate students living in their offices for three years due to a lack of housing. The public needs to understand why science is important, why it’s worthy of billions of dollars in public funds. If you discover it, they will come.

Nice bonuses to this year’s prize: one of the laureates is Canadian, and another is an alumnus of the U of C.

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