30. Post-Nobel blues and blackbody science

Generally, when the Nobel prizes  are announced in October, it is an occasion to celebrate science. The people who get the prize are shot into the limelight, and deservingly so. It is also an occasion where the subjectivity behind these prizes get exposed.

One such case is the invention of laser and the Nobel prize related to it. People who work with lasers and who are aware of its history will readily recognise that Theodore Maiman, the person who actually created the first working laser at optical wavelength, did not receive the Nobel prize.

It has been around 60 years since the invention of lasers, and John Dudley, in a recent commentary, has briefly summarised the context in which black body radiation science was initiated and its evolution towards lasers and the subsequent nomination and award of Nobel Prize. Some of the numbers related to nomination, that Dudley furnishes, is very interesting:

Maiman, despite being the first to see laser emission, never won the Nobel Prize, and neither did Jim Gordon. Whilst it is natural to consider these omissions as major oversights by the Nobel Committee, the available Nobel Prize archives reveal that the lack of any Nobel recognition for Maiman and Gordon may simply be linked to the fact that they were not strongly supported by the broader physics community at the time. In particular, starting as early as 1958, Charles Townes had been nominated 75 times for the Nobel Prize, including 29 nominations for the year in which he won. In contrast, based on what we know of the nomination archives (which are accessible until 1966), Gordon was nominated only once in 1963 and Maiman only once in 1964.”

Interestingly, I also learnt the initial reason why black body radiation was studied in late 1800s. To my surprise, it seems it was initiated purely for an economic and practical purpose, which turned out to be a trigger point for the revolution in quantum mechanics. As Dudley says:

In fact, it is not widely appreciated that these studies were not initially motivated by questions of fundamental scientific curiosity, but were rather stimulated by a very practical and economic problem. In particular, the city of Berlin at the time was choosing between gas and electric lighting, essentially the same problem as we have had in recent years in switching from incandescent and fluorescent lights to LEDs. Naturally, when making such a decision, standardizing the spectral content of the different light sources was a critical first step, and it was this that drove experiments to measure precision radiation curves of sources at different temperatures. Theoretical work by Wien was able to connect the peak emission wavelength and the source temperature, but explaining the shape of the emission curve was only possible with the introduction of energy quantization by Max Planck in 1900.”

This highlights how nonlinear the evolution of ideas are, and how new directions in science can be motivated and triggered by something which is purely practical. In some other cases, great science has also evolved from “blue sky” curiosity driven research, as in the case of laser, which has enormous practical utility.

Perhaps there lies the beauty of science: if you pay attention, everything is an inspiration…

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