And the Nobel Prize goes to…

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20 October 2016

At precisely 5:45 a.m. EDT on October 4th, this year's Nobel Prize in Physics was announced for "theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions." Writers at newspapers and various media outlets proceeded to scramble for material on the science behind the prize. Wired ran with an article titled "Nobel Prize in Physics Goes to Another Weird Thing Nobody Understands," while The Telegraph went with "British scientists win Nobel prize in physics for work so baffling it had to be described using bagels."

While this turn of events may be surprising and confusing to some—since scientists usually use donuts to explain topology, not bagels—the question lingers: They gave the Nobel Prize for what?

Many were ruffled by the announcement, much like a topological phase in a 2-D material is ruffled by an external magnetic field. Everybody expected that this year's Nobel Prize would go to a trio, just a different one.

For months leading up to October, Thorne, Drever, and Weiss were favored to win this year's prize for their direct contribution to the LIGO project that led to the detection of gravitational waves. To the surprise of many, the prize instead went to Thouless, Haldane, and Kosterlitz, whose names probably have never appeared in the New York Times before that Tuesday.

However, I do believe that the award is justified. Alfred Nobel's will specifically states that the prizes should go "to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind." In terms of measurable benefits to mankind, research in condensed matter physics has consistently outdone other fields in physics, which is probably why almost half of the Nobel Prizes in Physics in the past few decades have been awarded to advances within that field.

Condensed matter physics has long had a publicity problem—arguably the largest subfield in physics by many metrics, research in condensed matter physics often receives less media coverage than other "sexier" areas of physics. If you stop someone on the street and ask him or her to name a string of buzzwords related to "physics," terms like "string theory" or "big bang" will probably come up long before "giant magnetoresistance" or "topological phase transitions."

And so, on the first Tuesday of October, hundreds of journalists around the world raced to Wikipedia on their laptops and tried to reach scientists on their phones, in an attempt to digest and translate the science into an article the general public could understand. Good.

While it is delightful to see hard-working scientists getting the accolades they deserve—accolades that are perhaps too rare in science—some purists might argue that scientists are not like actors and actresses, and encouraging a self-congratulatory culture may add baggage to the already bureaucratically loaded academia. But the Nobel Prize in Physics does much more than pat scientists on the back. Once a year the prize holds the power to introduce something from the scientific world into the public consciousness.

Lest we forget, one of the goals of science, drawing from what Alfred Nobel said about his prizes, is to benefit mankind. A popular analogy for the relationship between science and mankind is that between a locomotive and its cargo. Scientists are often tempted to wonder how much faster the locomotive can go if the cargo is left behind. But just like a freight train without its cargo, science without humanity is also without purpose.

Prizes like the Nobel Prize in Physics, along with science communicators, serve to maintain and strengthen the link between the "locomotive" and the "cargo"—to educate the public regarding science, to promote the necessity of science, and also to provide feedback to researchers. So while the world continues to create problems that pile on to the cargoes in tow, science can continue to plow ahead, away from the problems of today and toward a better future.