AANT ELZINGA ,Einstein's Nobel Prize: A Glimpse Behind closed Doors
Sagamore Beach MA: Science History Publications,/USA 2006, ISBN: 0-88135-283-7.
published in shortened form in Brit. J. Hist.Sci. 41.i (no.148) 148-149, March 2008
Each of Albert Einstein's three ground-breaking papers of 1905 is nowadays considered to have merited the Nobel physics prize. He was nominated from 1910 onwards by increasing numbers of leading physicists. Only in 1922 was he awarded the deferred 1921 prize and on very narrow grounds, namely for the law of the photoelectric effect.
How did this happen? Elzinga's book based on the Nobel archives illuminates the tortuous path taken - from a narrow interpretation of Alfred Nobel's terms to antagonism on the four-man physics committee and a fudged compromise when the international credibility of the prize was at stake. As Nobel-laureate status is for many scientists the highest aspiration, the awarding system is significant in direction setting and its functioning has high importance.
The awards influenced the key developments of 20th century science, for good or ill. Einstein could have been awarded the prize for his contribution on Brownian motion, revealing the molecular structure of matter and forming the basis for statistical physics. His award could have been for contributing to quantum physics, the overarching theory of the subsequent century. Or the award could have been for the special and general theories of relativity. But it was specified just for an experimental 'law' relating the frequency of ultra-violet light to the energies of the electrons it ejects from metals. The novelty lay in light interacting with solids on the atomic scale and in Planck's quantum constant 'h' featuring in the law.
Elzinga makes clear the Nobel committee would not reward creative science, but only 'discovery or invention'. It definitely did not reward 'metaphysics and speculation', a stance relaxed in recent decades. Though Einstein's novel concept of duality (spelled out in 1909) went unmentioned in the citation, his prize is frequently attributed to his role in originating quantum theory. The 1982 biographer, Abraham Pais (Subtle is the Lord. The science and life of Albert Einstein, Oxford 1982) stated, indeed, that the award was rightly given for quantum physics (despite most nominators arguing for relativity) and lauded the "judgement of a highly responsible rather conservative body of great prestige.... the story has neither heroes nor culprits" (p503).
Elzinga's judgement is different and his analysis pulls no punches, showing a verdict cobbled together, amidst personal biases, for a narrow experimental law. Chance had intervened with the unexpected death of the committee chairman. The hero was a new committee member (C W Oseen) who saw the others were set against relativity, so argued for the 'law' being fundamental and underpinning Bohr's atom model. He successfully argued for a package using the deferred 1921 prize - one to Einstein and the second to Niels Bohr. But such was the animus against relativity theory that at the Swedish Academy's plenary meeting, the astonishing reservation was added to Einstein's certificate:
"independent of the value that (after eventual confirmation) may be credited to the relativity and gravitation theory".
This reflects the refusal throughout the decade to award a prize for relativity, revealing inadequacies and prejudices of committee members that Elzinga exposes in detail.
The records for 1910 and 1912 show they should have awarded the prize for the special relativity of the 1905 paper, which synthesised 19th century electromagnetism and the finite speed of light, while predicting increasing mass of an electron at relativistic speeds. By 1914-15 experimental tests confirming this fundamental 'law' would normally have satisfied the physics committee. But from 1914 they shifted the grounds of argument to the new general relativity theory (not published in full till 1916). Through 1917-19, they said the bending of light rays by the sun was controversial and emphasised that no gravitational red-shift had been detected in the sun's light. These were seen to outweigh the success of the third test (advance of the perihelion of the planet Mercury).
It is easy now to see that the conflation of 'special' and 'general' relativity by Einstein's peers was a mistake. Nearly all the nominations mentioned the two together, so the Committee was able to sidestep considering special relativity on its own (argued by von Laue) and insist that relativity fell short over the gravitational red-shift, even though detecting this was far beyond instrumental capability for that time. But the mistake arose also via nomenclature, as the 'general' theory is really a theory of gravitation and largely distinct. The special theory is of highest importance for fundamental notions of simultaneity and (equivalent) inertial frames and for its prediction of gravitational waves, whereas the general theory is still disputed, its formulation giving difficulty with gravitational waves etc**. The notion of 'locality' is another basic concept emerging from the special theory, on which Einstein insisted in his 1930s argument with quantum theorists and which remains a touchstone today.
The Nobel committee needed by 1921 to find a way out over Einstein, because of his high public profile as well as international scientific prestige. But a second reason for their change in view was a wish to play conciliator over the post-1918 'cold war in science'. The Swedish chemist, Svante Arrhenius and physicist Carl Wilhelm Oseen with others in neutral Sweden valued scientific internationalism and wanted to bring together scientists from the former warring countries. Elzinga says the prize committees sought to use the awards as a political instrument (as the Peace prize is used today). They made awards to several German scientists - Planck, Stark, Haber (despite involvement in gas warfare) and von Laue - and arranged a special celebration for the wartime nobelists in June 1920. Only Charles Barkla attended from the English-speaking world (not the Braggs) and praised the "truly international" award. Despite controversy (over Haber), its long-term prestige did apparently benefit. The 1921-2 awards to Einstein and Bohr were needed to restore credibility. Einstein's 1923 acceptance lecture was on relativity (then seen to be his major work) at the instigation of Svante Arrhenius, who thus had reversed his opposition in committee.
Elzinga fails to say directly that Abraham Pais was mistaken, despite their quite different assessments of the Nobel committee's decision-making. He does not explain how Pais's short chapter based on the same Nobel archive could be so wrong.
Pais's would have spent limited time on the archive, in writing his short chapter. But he should have identified important issues and uncertainties for others to explore. It could be that Pais had no Swedish language facility, causing him to overlook the contorted arguments that Elzinga details from the lengthy internal reports. As Pais knew the nominations were predominantly for relativity, one infers that he was guessing when he excused the committee as lacking expertise in relativity** and wanting experimental issues clarified. This lame excuse overlooks the clear prejudice of committee members against relativity that Elzinga describes.
Pais concluded (Elzinga p. 4) that the prize was for applying quantum theory and rightly (he says) given for "the most revolutionary contribution (Einstein) ever made to physics". This appears to be a pre-formed conclusion, reflecting Pais's orientation in quantum physics.
It's an important issue for a modern biographer, because Pais's 1982 biography carries authority and prestige for its exposition of Einstein's science. It was reissued in 2005 with endorsements by prominent physicists. However
Elzinga's study is an excellent eye-opener. Yet he was reluctant to challenge the authority of Pais, though biographies are naturally written within a social and cultural context. Not to bring out further where Pais's authoritative biography went wrong is an unfortunate deficiency. Nevertheless, Elzinga helps us recover Einstein's story from the tendentious interpretation of it that has gone unchallenged for too long.
Elzinga's absorbing story opens an important avenue for further research and wide debate: was and are the Nobel science awards right to stress experiments and discovery over theorising? This implies not explicitly rewarding creative science. Though in practice ways to do this can be found - the criteria are "rubbery" says Elzinga - there remains a strong bias to waiting for experimental verification. Thus there has been no Nobel prize for the prediction of black holes. Voices are increasingly saying that 20th century physics became super-theoretical (Lee Smolin, The Trouble with Physics, Houghton-Mifflin, Sept. 2006 / Penguin (UK), Feb. 2007). Certainly, multi-dimensional cosmologies, retro-causality and instantaneous collapse of astronomical scale wave-functions are speculative and so remote from experiment as to be unqualified for Nobel awards. On this argument the Nobel Committee is one institution that helps keeps science sane.
MAX K WALLIS, Cardiff University
TREVOR W MARSHALL, Manchester University
** Indeed Allvar Gullstrand, a member of the committee, did have published work on general relativity (1922) and his name is still attached to Painlevé-Gullstrand coordinates. His 1921 report opposing the award of the prize did criticise the absence of dynamic solutions (gravitational waves) which is a longstanding issue (Lo, 2006) and relates to the "ambiguity" (non-unique) objection to GR published by Whitehead (1922) which is central in the Relativistic Theory of Gravitation (Logunov 2001, 2006). Thus Gullstrand's scepticism over the three tests was underpinned by basic theoretical questioning. Perhaps this (healthy) scepticism was also shared by wider sections in the full Swedish Academy.
Whitehead, A.N.: The principle of relativity. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (1922)
Gullstrand, A.: "Allgemeine Lösung des statischen Einkörperproblems in der Einsteinschen Gravitationstheorie" Ark. Mat. Astr. Fys. 16(8) 1-15 (1922)
Lo, C. Y.: The Gravitational "Plane Waves" of Liu & Zhou and the Nonexistence of Dynamic Solutions for Einstein's Equation, Astrophys Space Sci (2006) 306:205-215
Logunov, A. A. : The Theory of Gravity, Nauka, Moscow (2001).
Logunov, A. A. : Relativistskaya Teoria Gravitatsii, Nauka, Moscow (2006)