x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

The science of winning a noble prize

These have been pretty trying days for some of the smartest people on the planet. Each morning, their hearts have been skipping a beat when the phone rings.

Every time they will have wondered if the caller has a Scandinavian accent and news that they’ve won the ultimate accolade in academia, the Nobel Prize.

For some, the waiting will have be especially difficult, as they’d already been singled out as likely winners by a company that claims to be able to track academic brilliance by computer analysis.

Since 2002, Thomson Reuters has been building up a list – perhaps that should be The List – of top brains with the best chances of winning the Nobel Prize.

And it’s had startling success. Up until last week it had correctly predicted the names of 27 Nobellists winning the prizes in physics, chemistry, medicine/physiology and economics.

Given that literally hundreds of academics have been contenders over this time, that’s a pretty impressive strike rate.

As of last week, it had become even more impressive, correctly predicting five more Nobellists, with the economics prize to be announced tomorrow [[Mon 14 Oct]].

Admittedly, two of the five – theoretical physicists Peter Higgs and François Englert, who independently predicted the eponymous particle discovered by the Large Hadron Collider last year – were shoo-ins. But the others would have had most science commentators reaching for Wikipedia in the hope of finding out something, anything about them.

So how do Thomson Reuters do it? Their success lies in analysis of that most precious of academic commodities, research citations.

Having one’s research papers cited by others has long been deemed a key metric of importance and influence in academia. And as a rule of thumb, the more influential one is – at least, in the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine and economics - the higher the chances of bagging a Nobel.

The list consists of so-called Citation Laureates – researchers who have written a substantial number of highly-cited papers over many years – which helps rule out the one-trick ponies and flashes-in-the-pan.

It’s an effective set of criteria: anyone appearing on the Thomson Reuters annual list has a roughly one in four chance of being among the winners of a Nobel.

But while vast numbers of citations and a Nobel Prize are generally reliable markers of great research, the reverse is far from true. Many academics have come to loathe the focus on citations, especially by university administrators, who increasingly use them to decide who gets hired and fired.

Academics see citations as a crude way of keeping score, and one that often says more about what issues are currently in vogue than in what is actually important.

This in turn can distort the research agenda, persuading young academics to chase topics currently in favour with journals rather than follow their instincts.

A classic example dates back to the era when Professors Englert and Higgs were working in particle physics, more than 50 years ago.

They were among the relatively small group of theorists trying to succeed where Einstein failed, and find a unified theory for the forces of nature.

This was widely regarded as hopeless, pretty much guaranteeing those who worked on it minimal citations.

Back then, it didn’t matter so much, and many of those involved in this “hopeless” quest were still active in 1971, when a huge theoretical breakthrough suddenly made the quest credible.

Within a few years, those once poorly-cited theorists were winning Nobel Prizes – and, as last week showed, they still are.

But there was a downside to these triumphs. They have led to the quest to succeed where Einstein failed dominating theoretical physics – and with it, the league tables of citations.

Yet many theorists now suspect the quest is an intellectual bandwagon that’s going round in circles.

Still, academics can hardly be blamed for being eager to jump aboard. After all, the depressing truth is that around 90 per cent of research papers are never cited at all. There is safety – and continued employment and funding – in bandwagons.

This, in turn, makes the focus on getting cited a potential threat to the march of science.

Nor is this a mere theoretical possibility. Take the case of the Swiss theorist Ernst Stueckelberg, the most brilliant scientist you have never heard of.

Born into a minor Swiss aristocratic family in 1905, Baron Ernst Carl Gerlach Stueckelberg studied physics in Basel and Munich before embarking on what should have been a standard academic career at various Swiss universities.

But from his late 20s, Stueckelberg began making a series of extraordinary advances in the field of sub-atomic particle physics.

The first centred on the nature of the so-called strong nuclear force, which binds together atomic nuclei.

Stueckelberg showed that the force could be explained in terms of a “carrier particle” which transmitted forces from place to place.

It was a radical idea, far removed from the vague force-field ideas that had been circulating for years.

Unfortunately, Stueckelberg was talked out of publishing by a colleague – only to see it discovered independently shortly afterwards by another theorist, Hideki Yukawa in Japan – who duly won the 1949 Nobel Prize for physics.

Stueckelberg was no one-trick pony, however. Around the same time, he set about tackling fearsome problems that plagued the theory of how electrons interact with light.

He succeeded in solving the problems, only to make a catastrophic professional blunder: he wrote up his work using a strange notation, and published in French in an obscure Swiss journal.

Once again, his work was ignored, and he had to endure seeing others solve the same problem and win another clutch of Nobel Prizes.

Undaunted, Stueckelberg made yet another seminal advance in the 1950s by discovering the so-called renormalisation group, a set of mathematical tricks that has since proved useful throughout theoretical physics.

But once again, he refused to play the academic game, published in an obscure journal – and again watched others pick up Nobel Prizes for the same idea.

Stueckelberg himself seemed quite unconcerned by all this. Just before his death in 1984, he told two science historians that he knew he was his own worst enemy when playing the game of science.

Today, winning that game is in danger of becoming more important to some scientists than science itself.

O Robert Matthews is visiting reader in science at Aston University, Birmingham, England