Tuesday, October 14, 2008

British physics...how is it measured?

The Fox and the Grapes


Tara Hogan

Is this a case of sour grapes? Ultimately, how does one measure the realm of physics achievements...by prestigious awards, national clout, garnered prize money...isn't there something more?

"Where have our Nobel physics prizes gone?"

Britain's proud contribution to the history of physics has been tarnished by lack of success in recent decades


Matthew Chalmers

October 14th, 2008

Times Online

The work that brought one US and two Japanese scientists this year's Nobel prize for physics won't mean much to most people. It concerns brilliant insights into the “broken” mathematical symmetries that govern the sub-atomic world, shedding light on why the universe contains any matter at all - which includes you and the air you breathe. It is precisely this kind of mind-blowing stuff that the £3.6 billion Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, currently down for repairs, was built to unearth by smashing particles together 600 million times per second inside a 27km subterranean fridge.

But you don't need a PhD in theoretical physics to appreciate one thing about this year's physics Nobel: it didn't go to the UK. In the last three decades only one UK citizen has been awarded the Nobel Prize for physics: Tony Leggett in 2003. It's a conspicuous mismatch next to the 20 prizes accrued by UK physicists during the previous seven decades, and compares against six Nobels in chemistry and 11 in medicine picked up during the same period.

Meanwhile, Germany (population one third greater) has won ten, France (same population) four and the US (five times greater) a whopping 45 physics Nobels since 1978. Should we be concerned?

Nobel-calibre physics is world-changing. Last year's more widely reported prize went for the discovery of a magnetic effect that two decades later allows you to pack more DVDs on your hard drive. The 1964 prize recognised the invention of the laser that burns data on to those DVDs, and the microelectronics age itself was born with the transistor (1956 prize), around which electrons discovered by Cambridge physicist J. J.Thomson (1906 prize) are shunted.

Physics also underpinned the deciphering of DNA, bringing the UK physicist Francis Crick a share of the 1962 medicine Nobel. And the discovery of nuclear magnetic resonance (1952 physics Nobel), without which we would not have MRI scanners, has spawned further Nobels in chemistry and in medicine - the latter shared by UK physicist Sir Peter Mansfield, of Nottingham University, in 2003.

Science is no Olympic-like contest, but Nobel prizes bring national and institutional prestige, as well as a slice of ten million Swedish kroner. The Japanese Government is already capitalising on last week's announcement by hinting that it will use the “tailwind” of the Nobel to strengthen its case for hosting the LHC's multibillion-pound successor: a 40km long “international linear collider”, which could be operational in the 2020s. Given our politicians' worship of the knowledge economy, to which physics contributes some £70 billion annually, any signs that the UK's Nobel physics heritage is in decline should set government alarm bells ringing.

Yet the Nobel, awarded for a single discovery often decades after it was made, paints a rather different picture of UK physics than most other measures. The UK consistently punches above its weight in the number of citations its physics research papers receive, and excels in closely related disciplines such as earth science, mathematics and astronomy, which lie outside the Nobel remit. UK physicists also do well in other prizes such as the Wolf, often seen as a precursor to the Nobel.

Indeed, earlier this month the most extensive review of UK physics undertaken, chaired by Professor Bill Wakeham of Southampton University, concluded that the subject is in good health, although admitted that it faced big educational challenges (A-level entrants have plummeted by a third since 1993, the Institute of Physics estimates that we are up to 8,000 physics teachers short, and 20 university physics departments have closed since 1997).

Our recent dearth of physics Nobels could simply be a run of bad luck, and UK institutions may lack the resources to lure top names and be less inclined to lobby - factors which, on top of greater funding, may have helped to drive the huge rise in US physics Nobels over the past 50 years. What is unlikely to help matters, though, is the complete reliance of UK physics on central funding, compared with the booming biomedical sciences, for example, which benefit from support from the Wellcome Trust, charities and the pharmaceutical industry. Inevitably this limits the volume of basic physics research and generates a need for short-term societal and economic returns, none of which sits comfortably with the blue-skies, investigator-led research typical of Nobel recognition.

The Wakeham review is testament to this vulnerability. It was commissioned in response to an £80 million black hole which appeared in the quango that funds UK particle physics and astronomy late last year - something deemed by a Commons select committee to have damaged the UK's international standing in physics.

International reputations are vital in particle physics, which is far too expensive and complicated to be carried out by single countries. Whichever nation ends up hosting the international linear collider, it would reap scientific and economic rewards. Indeed, with an impeccable 54-year track record of European and international collaboration, CERN (which straddles the Swiss-French border just outside Geneva and to which the UK contributes £78 million annually) has its own plans for such a project.

The long-awaited LHC, which caught the world's attention when it switched on last month, should bring Nobel rewards. And if, as widely expected, it discovers a particle called the Higgs boson, a retired Englishman called Peter Higgs, of Edinburgh University, will almost certainly be on his way to Stockholm to boost our physics Nobel tally. That would give newspaper editors no excuse not to tell their readers about the broken mathematical symmetries of nature rewarded in the 2008 prize, since the Higgs boson is predicted to be the product of just that - explaining, no less, the origin of mass.

This year's Nobel prize for physics is one of tens that mark the enormous advances in our understanding of nature's fundamental constituents. It's a trail that leads right back to the quantum mechanics revolution at the beginning of the last century and to the UK, which helped to lay the foundations of modern physics and thus the modern world. The UK has an enormous scientific Nobel heritage. The club of living UK physics laureates has only three members. It's high time that number was increased.

[Dr. Matthew Chalmers is a writer and former particle physicist at CERN.]

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