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Blog

Physics Nobel will attract controversy

By Hamish Johnston

Assigning credit for a scientific discovery is never easy, especially when two rival, interacting teams of scientists are involved. That is exactly the problem that the Nobel committee must have grappled with before awarding this year’s physics prize to Saul Perlmutter, Adam Riess and Brian Schmidt.

Perlmutter led the Supernova Cosmology Project, while Schmidt and Riess were involved with the High-Z Supernovae programme. Both groups came to the surprising conclusion in 1998 that the rate of expansion of the universe is increasing, not decreasing as had been thought. So a shared prize seems fair enough.

Or is it? In 2007 Bob Crease wrote an extensive article about the same discovery that proved controversial – to say the least. Some members from both teams had been particularly worried about Crease’s article, which went through more than 20 drafts.

At issue was the fact that the teams were rivals using different techniques – as well as the question of who reported and published their work first. What Bob’s article reveals is how deeply scientific progress is indebted to ambition, desire, pride, rivalry, suspicion and other perfectly ordinary human passions.

You can read the article here, and I would also recommend looking at the comments that follow.

Also, let us know what you think by voting in our Facebook poll, where the question is:

Has the 2011 Nobel Prize for Physics for “the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe” gone to the right people?

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