Personal Thoughts on the Nobel Prize in Physics 2023

A few weeks ago the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to three scientists for their experimental work founding the field of attosecond science. (can you believe that “attosecond” is actually shown as a typo when drafting this?) This is 5 years after the 2018 prize, which I also wrote about in this blog, given for the chirped pulse amplification (CPA) technique. CPA enabled lasers to get to high intensities and was therefore a boon for atomic physics, plasma physics, and material science where scientists could now study their physical systems under new regimes of strong electric field. In my previous post I weakly predicted that the prize would later go to attoscience, although I only named one of the laureates, Ferenc Krausz, and I didn’t think it would only take 5 years.

Although my own work is closer to the content of the 2018 prize, I still feel massively motivated by this year’s. It brings a lot of attention to ultrafast science in general (I need to get funding in the coming year(s) …), and makes me feel like the work I’m doing is not just some obscure academic pursuit. Also, this year’s award is fully for attosecond science (instead of only half of 2018 going to CPA and the other half for optical tweezers), and the three laureates all have very illustrious and prolific careers, so the award is not necessarily for just one discovery like it was in 2018. Lastly, also like in 2018, there is another female laureate. I’m not saying there is any causal connection, but ultrafast science contributing to two out of five female laureates in history makes me proud.

It’s interesting how my thoughts are different for this year’s prize compared to 2018. I was actually more excited by the result this year, and followed the press afterwards much more closely, but internally I also have more misgivings. I acknowledged before and always have that all prizes are flawed and don’t fully represent science or any given sub-field, and of course always can leave people out (Paul Corkum is this year’s example of that). I am now 5 years older, 5 more years spent in academia, and although I don’t yet have a permanent academic job, I feel more like a “peer” to this year’s laureates than ever before. Maybe it is that fact, that I understand the system of academic research more now, that I am at once more excited and more apprehensive after it is awarded in my field?

It is funny how science works; how fast it moves. These physics prizes are not some fancy high-energy particle physics theory that I don’t understand. They aren’t some crazy technique to synthesize something, or a new material found out of the blue. They are techniques and processes that I know well. And I am so close to them that, to be honest, the basics feel almost trivial to me now. To think that work like that is worth a Nobel prize is confusing. I know it is cool and was transformative, but at the same time it is also “easy” now. Of course I know that it wasn’t easy or trivial 25-30 years ago, but it puts science in perspective. How will the work of me and my colleagues be viewed in 25 years? Will it also be trivial? Will it have transformed something? And what will be the cutting edge then? It’s amazing how little I can contribute to answering these questions, especially the last one, and it reminds me how cool research is and how harrowing the passage of time is.

I also find myself thinking silly thoughts. If the prize was awarded for this, could my work eventually be Nobel worthy? Or does two prizes in ultrafast mean that they won’t give another prize and so I therefore cannot get one myself? These are just ridiculous questions, of course, but the broader question is: How much should we use these prizes as motivation? And this is the main source of my misgivings. A single fancy prize seems like one of the worst sources of motivation. And I see the quest for “fanciness” all around me, from the benign use of not so correct buzz words being used to describe everything, to the more hurtful cases of the impact and reach of results being blatantly overblown. I see well-known professors getting almost every paper published in the glossy journals, when it is clear that not every one is worth it. Not to mention grant money. How much of these toxic practices, ever-present in academic research, is due to the pursuit of research fame and fancy prizes? We are all human, so I’m not blaming myself or others for being excited (in fact, it’s definitely a great thing, especially for non-scientists to get a view into cutting-edge science), but I feel that we should moderate ourselves a bit when it comes to the effect of these prizes on our work. But will I get left behind if I don’t play the game too?

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