So who do we think would be the right recipients for any Nobel Prize that might be awarded for inflation assuming the BICEP2 results hold up? (update 28-3-2014: Since people keep commenting that this is premature let me stress again that this is a vote based on the assumption that the experimental results hold up and the theory is agreed to confirm inflation, see my earlier post on this for my somewhat skeptical take given the current standing. Despite the uncertainty it is still of interest to think about who are considered the main discoverers of the inflation theory because there are a lot of news reports that are simplifying the history)
Cast your votes in this poll. You can vote multiple times so you can vote for up to three winners for a theory prize and another three for an experimental prize. (multiple voting is now closed)
Update (22-Mar-2014): After a few days we can see where this voting is going so thanks to all those who voted so far.
The Guardian has now also discussed the same question and made the point that the Nobel committee will have a hard choice, but you will see that they have not identified all the candidates that we have here. Some people have responded by saying that we should not be thinking instantly about who should win a Nobel yet because it is too soon. I disagree with that. The story about who are the main people behind this discovery is of immediate interest and by focusing on the possibility of Nobel prizes I think we highlight the human side of the discovery. It is true that we should be cautious about the uncertainty of the discovery until it has been confirmed but that does not stop us talking about the consequences, either scientifically or sociologically. There is a danger of being too negative and missing the opportunity to make some science and worthy scientists known to the wider public while their gaze falls fleetingly on upon physics and cosmology.
So what do the poll results say? The first thing that stands out is that the theorists are getting the most votes, especially Linde, Guth, and Starobinsky. Linde has now rushed ahead of Guth because he suddenly got 50 extra votes. The theoretical bias is perhaps understandable because the media (including me) has said more about the theorists and they have been familiar to us for many years. Indeed Guth and Linde in particular have been tipped for the Nobel long before this discovery. The experimenters are new stars so they have a smaller fan club and get less votes, but the Nobel Committee may see it the other way round. If BICEP2 is confirmed by Planck then it will be clear that a Nobel worthy discovery has been made even if the theory behind it remains uncertain. When the prize was given for accelerating cosmic expansion the committee made it clear that the award was for the observation irrespective of how theorists interpreted it and they are likely to see this discovery the same way until it is clear that inflation is the correct explanation rather than the alternatives.
The Nobel committee could in fact play things in several different ways:
- A prize for the experimental side first followed by the theory prize later
- A prize for the theory side first followed by the experiment
- A combined prize for both
- A prize just for the theory
- A prize just for the experiment
- No prize at all.
I predict option 1 assuming confirmation, but any of the others are quite possible. Choosing the experimental prize is already difficult. There is an interesting story about how it was caltech postdoc Brian Keating who originated the idea for this experiment and then persuaded Jamie Bock to take it on. This would suggest that Keating and Bock are key candidates for the prize but Keating seems to have dropped out of the picture at some point so he does not get many votes. John Kovac has been promoted as the main leader of the experiment but Chao-Lin Kuo led the team that really made the instrument work and Clem Pryke’s team made crucial discoveries for the analysis. I find it painful to think that at least one of these people will have to be left out but that is the way the Nobel works. If I am forced to make a prediction at this stage I would go with the voting so far and say it will be Kovac and Bock who take the honour on behalf of the BICEP2 team while Uros Seljak would make a fitting third laureate for his seminal work on B-modes that made the experiment possible.
On the theory side that I already covered there are three classes of theoretical work on inflation that could eventually be rewarded. There is the initial realisation that inflation may be a feature of cosmology and could solve certain problems (flatness, horizon, monopole etc) Guth, Starobinsky, Kazanas and Sato are independently responsible for this idea. Then there are the people who made crucial predictions of gravitational waves and anisotropies in the microwave background. The ones who got there first are Starobinsky, Einhorn and Mukhanov. The committee favours such predictions for obvious good reasons so any of these people could be up for the prize. Finally we have those who have worked on specific models including Linde, Albrecht and Steinhardt. The problem for these people is that no particular model for inflation has been shown to work yet. It is possible that that work has not yet been completed or that a more recent specific model will be shown to be right. However Linde is such a big figure in the field of inflationary cosmology who has been tipped for the Nobel for years already that I think the weight of nominations will be in his favour and if that is the case then he is surely deserving enough. In my opinion the destination of the theory component of the prize is not yet determined even if the experimental discovery is confirmed and will depend on work that is still to come otherwise I would expect it to go to Guth, Linde and Starobinsky as indicated by the voting.
Update 27-03-2014: see the comments for information about Erast Gliner who published an inflation theory in 1965. I have added his name to the poll but too late.