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The quality of greatness

Since 1964,the world of physics has waited for evidence.

Nothing is quite as revealing of our values as the qualities we revere in those we call great. In the last week,physics and economics both saw new sets of Nobel laureates. And for the next few days,much will be written about their achievements. As interesting as the science behind these awards is what they reveal about the differences between these two academic communities.

Since construction on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN began,we’ve known that it might decide the fate of a Nobel prize for Peter Higgs and one or more of his illustrious colleagues. Although a great deal of science has emerged and will continue to emerge from the LHC,for the media,it has always been about one thing — the search for the flamboyantly named “god particle”,also known as the “Higgs Boson”. The idea of the Higgs Boson was not proposed recently. Indeed,the first to articulate the theory were Francois Englert and Robert Brout in an article in Physical Review Letters in 1964. A month or so later came Higgs ,with two papers offering a similar insight. And just one month after that,three physicists Gerald Guralnik,Tom Kibble and C. Richard Hagen independently published arguably the most complete paper on the issue.

In 2011,Brout,co-author in the first of these papers,passed away,with the LHC still doing trial runs. His name is missing among the winners this year because the physics Nobel committee has clear eligibility requirements for those it honours. Being alive is one of them. And for theorists,being proved right is another.

Since 1964,the world of physics has waited for evidence. And not until March this year did an experiment at the LHC provide the necessary independent confirmation that these men were not just clever but also right. And yet the Nobel committee found itself constrained by another rule. For,in a race,it is not sufficient to cross the finish line if one does not reach there first.

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And so,with a self-imposed limit of three winners a year,only two of the six men who share roughly equal intellectual credit for postulating the Higgs Boson won the award. For Guralnik,Kibble and Hagen,being right was not enough to make up for not being first. The 2013 physics Nobel thus went to Englert and Higgs alone. And while the award may have been announced this week,it was decided a few months ago by a large research team analysing the output from a multibillion-dollar experimental rig. In a sense,then,this was really a prize with nature as the jury.

Just a few days later,as the economics Nobel laureates were announced,it was hard to avoid noticing how different a philosophy was at work here. Eugene Fama,Robert Shiller and Lars Hansen are all brilliant men,as are Higgs and Englert (and Guralnik,Kibble and Hagen). Yet Fama is known best for postulating a theory of efficient markets in 1970 that was elegant,insightful,influential,but almost certainly either wrong or tautological. Indeed,his co-laureate,Robert Shiller,grew famous precisely for showing that Fama’s efficient market hypothesis is not,in practice,literally true,and for undertaking empirical work to show this. Meanwhile,the third winner,Lars Hansen is known not as a theorist but as an econometrician. His contribution was to create the statistical tools with which to test Fama’s theory.

The 2013 economics Nobel is thus not an accolade for uncovering a truth about our world. It is,rather,an acknowledgement of having great ideas. It is true that we know more today about stock prices and markets than we did before Fama wrote in 1970. Yet it would be hard to argue that we have anywhere near a complete theory. Instead,we have discovered that some seemingly brilliant ideas will take us only so far,and that to make markets work (or to understand them properly,the two being related) requires grappling with a great deal of nuance. This is an award,then,by an academic discipline that values cleverness and insight as much or more than being right or saying something true. It is very much an award by men and women for those they respect,and thus it is simultaneously both highly subjective and deeply meaningful.

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It is hard to say which view of greatness makes more sense. It may seem to many scientists that being clever is rather pointless if we are also wrong. Yet,would Higgs and Englert have been any less worthy as theorists had the data from the CERN experiments looked different? To reward cleverness for its own sake arguably makes a little more sense once we recognise two things. First,that we learn as much from what doesn’t work as we do from what does. Second that the “truth” can be a somewhat slippery and context-dependent concept in the first place. Ultimately,perhaps,the contrast in how these two disciplines have given their highest awards also cuts to the heart of what it means to be a social science versus a science.

Anant Sudarshan

The writer is a research fellow in sustainability science at the Kennedy School of Government,Harvard University

express@expressindia.com

First published on: 17-10-2013 at 04:00:20 am
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