My record for predicting the winners of Nobel prizes is mixed. The last time I made a public prediction was two years ago. I correctly picked Konstantin Novoselov and Andre Geim as winners, but I thought their work on graphene—by analogy with the work of Robert Curl, Harold Kroto, and Richard Smalley on buckyballs—would earn the pair the chemistry prize. The only prize I got completely correct was Mario Vargas Llosa’s for literature.
This year, rather than make predictions, I’ve decided to identify who I hope will win the prizes I care about the most: physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, and literature.
One of the topics of enduring interest to physicists is the boundary between the realms of quantum and classical behavior. In 2004 I wrote a news story about an ingenious experiment that explored that boundary. Markus Arndt, Anton Zeilinger, and their colleagues at the University of Vienna sent buckyballs through a pair of closely spaced slits.
When the molecules were cold, they behaved like quantum objects and formed interference fringes after passing through the slits. But when the molecules were hot, the coherent fringes disappeared. Evidently, the molecules’ temperature and emission of thermal photons—not their size or mass—demarked the quantum–classical boundary.
That story was my first direct encounter with research on how the environment influences quantum behavior. The second came in 2009 when I wrote about a calculation that resolved a 82-year-old quantum paradox: Why is a chiral molecule found in either its left-handed or right-handed isomeric forms and not in a superposition of the two?
To reach their answer, Klaus Hornberger and Johannes Trost of Ludwig-Maximilians University calculated the most probable states of a deuterated dihydrogen dilsulfide molecule in the presence of helium atoms. At room temperature, once the pressure exerted by the He atoms exceeded 1.6 × 10−5 mbar, the He atoms would kick the D2S2 molecule out of a mix of superpositions and into either its left-handed or right-handed form.
As I noted in my story, that a calculation could precisely locate a quantum–classical boundary is both mundane and profound—mundane, because the calculation made use of standard, unadulterated quantum mechanics; profound, because it demystified the quantum–classical boundary.
The physicist who has done the most to advance the notion that the environment, when fully and properly accounted for, drives the quantum–classical boundary is Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Wojciech Zurek. I hope he’s awarded the physics prize.
The discovery, published in February 2008, of superconductivity in a compound that contains iron and arsenic touched off an explosion of research that continues to this day. Several branches of the family of iron-based superconductors have since been discovered.
Although no family member’s critical temperature can yet match the highest of the cuprates, the iron-based superconductors are significant because their superconductivty, like that of the cuprates, is mediated by electron–electron interactions. Evidence is building that the pairing symmetry is not d-wave, as in the case of the cuprates, but is a form of s-wave.
The iron-based superconductors, therefore, demonstrate that high-temperature superconductivity is not limited either to the cuprates or to the precise form it takes in the cuprates. Other chemical families, as yet undiscovered, could have still higher critical temperatures.
Hideo Hosono of the Tokyo Institute of Technology made the discovery. I hope he is awarded the chemistry prize.
Physiology or medicine
The last time pharmacology was honored with a Nobel Prize was in 1988, when James Black, Gertrude Elion, and George Hitchings shared the award “for their discoveries of important principles for drug treatment.” This year, I hope that Ravinder Maini and Marc Feldmann of Imperial College London are rewarded for identifying tumor necrosis factor as a potential (and now effective) drug target for treating inflammatory diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis.
The Wikipedia entry on William Trevor, whose photo appears above, begins like this:
William Trevor, KBE (born 24 May 1928) is an Irish author and playwright. One of the elder statesmen of the Irish literary world, he is widely regarded as one of the greatest contemporary writers of short stories in the English language.
If the Swedish Academy can suspend its habitual political posturing and instead reward sensitivity, sympathy, and skill, then it might just bestow the literature prize on Trevor. Doing so would honor not just him, but two great writers whose work inspired him and who weren’t awarded Nobel prizes: Anton Chekhov and James Joyce.