Einstein vs. The Nobel Committee

When Albert Einstein listed the most important honors of his life, he did not include the one with the highest profile and pay: the Nobel Prize. But perhaps this omission isn’t so surprising. The Nobel nod—17 years after Einstein published his special theory of relativity—came long after recognition by the rest of the world. Even more bizarre, the gold medallion was given to Einstein not for his relativity revolution, but for the relatively obscure discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect. Now, in this 100-year anniversary of Einstein’s “annus mirabilis,” or miraculous year, one historian thinks he knows why.  After years of sifting through letters and diaries of the Scandinavian archives, Robert Marc Friedman of the University of Oslo says it was an intentional snub, fueled by the political atmosphere of post-war Europe.

In 1905, while working as a patent clerk in Switzerland, 26-year-old Albert Einstein published five seminal papers on the nature of space, light, and motion. Until that point, most physicists viewed the cosmos through Isaac-Newton-colored glasses: the planets and the stars obeyed the same rules as apples falling from a tree. Space was inflexible and could be described with Euclidean geometry; time ticked by at the same steady rate everywhere in the universe. But one of Einstein’s 1905 papers, the special theory of relativity, he did away with the notion of absolute space and time—effectively turning the standard Newtonian model on its deterministic head.

In the next decade, Einstein built upon these ideas to include the concept of gravity. In 1915, his general theory of relativity proposed that gravity was not some mysterious force of attraction between bodies, but rather the result of the space distortions caused by massive bodies like the Sun and the planets. Moreover, it proposed that this curving of space affects not only particles, people, and planets—but light, too. Today, general relativity is celebrated as Einstein’s most impressive work. But Friedman says that in Germany after the First World War, Einstein was despised as a pacifist Jew who renounced his German citizenship, went to meetings of radical groups, and publicly supported socialism. His theories were dismissed as “world bluffing Jewish physics” by some prominent German physicists, who claimed to practice “true” German science based on observations of the natural world and hypotheses that could be tested in a laboratory.

Luckily for Einstein, British astronomer Arthur Stanley Eddington believed there was a way to test the general theory. If space was curved, as Einstein proposed, then light traveling through it should too follow a curved, rather than straight, path. Moreover, its path would be curved most around a very strong gravitational force like that of the Sun. This bending of light could be observed, it was thought, if photographs of stars that appeared very close to the Sun were compared to photographs of the same stars when they were not near the Sun. The only problem was that from an earthly vantage point, the Sun’s brightness blinded that of nearby stars. But on May 29, 1919, six minutes of a total solar eclipse ironically provided enough obscurity for Eddington to measure the positions of the stars that appeared next to the eclipsed Sun. And sure enough, they followed the predictions of Einstein’s general theory.  

Almost overnight, Einstein became a household name throughout the world. Nominations for Einstein poured into the laps of the members of the Nobel Committee as they were reviewing candidates for the 1920 prize.  But the Committee’s objections to relativity went beyond its theoretical nature. According to Friedman, the Committee did not want a “political and intellectual radical, who—it was said—did not conduct experiments, crowned as the pinnacle of physics.” So the 1920 prize was given to the Swiss Charles-Edouard Guillaume for his ho-hum discovery of an inert nickel-steel alloy. When the announcement was made, Friedman says the previously-unknown Guillaume “was as surprised as the rest of the world.”

By the next year, what Friedman calls “Einstein-mania” was in full bloom. As his quirky personality (and untamed tresses) gained more popularity with the general public, his theory gained more credibility in the scientific community. In 1921, swarms of both theoreticians and experimentalists again nominated Einstein for his work on relativity. Reporters kept asking him, to his great annoyance: Would this finally be the year that he received a Nobel Prize?

But 1921 was not the year, thanks to one stubborn senior member of the Prize Committee: Allvar Gullstrand. Trained as an ophthalmologist, Gullstrand’s knowledge of theoretical physics left much to be desired; nevertheless his arrogance, according to Friedman, led him to challenge Einstein’s theories. (As Friedman jokes, “In a small, isolated but locally prestigious academic environment, arrogance, like mold in a damp cellar, tends to thrive.”) In a 50-odd-page report, Gullstrand collected every published article—no matter how obscure—that even slightly doubted relativity, while omitting the far greater number that saluted it. One private remark by Gullstrand, which Friedman found buried in a diary, sums up his sour attitude: “Einstein must never receive a Nobel Prize, even if the whole world demands it.” Gullstrand’s arguments, however biased, convinced the rest of the committee. In 1921, no one was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics.

Two prizes were thus available in 1922. By this time, Einstein’s popularity was so great that many members of the committee worried about their international reputation if they didn’t recognize him in some way. Like the previous two years, he received many nominations for relativity. But this year there was one nomination—from a certain Carl Wilhelm Oseen—not for relativity, but for the discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect.

The photoelectric effect was, along with the special theory of relativity, one of the five papers Einstein published in 1905. Before this, light was known to come in waves. But Einstein was the first to propose that light actually had a dual nature: it acted as both a wave and a particle. At first, this theory faced just as much controversy as special relativity. But there was a big difference: laboratory experiments conducted in 1916 showed the validity of the photoelectric effect. Friedman was the first historian to emphasize that Oseen wanted the Committee to recognize the photoelectric effect not as a theory, but as a fundamental law of nature. Why? Not because he cared about recognizing Einstein, but because he had another theoretical physicist in mind for that second available prize: Niels Bohr.

Niels Bohr had proposed a new quantum theory of the atom that Oseen felt was “the most beautiful of all the beautiful” in recent theoretical physics. In his report to the Committee, Oseen exaggerated the close bond between Einstein’s proven law of nature and Bohr’s new atom. “In one brilliant stroke,” Friedman explains, “he saw how to meet the objections against both Einstein and Bohr.”
After reviewing Friedman’s research, Bruce Hunt, an Einstein historian at the University of Texas at Austin, was especially intrigued by the way Oseen changed the emphasis from the theory of the photoelectric effect to the law of the photoelectric effect. “What Friedman brings out particularly well,” Hunt says, “is how deftly Oseen used the other Swedish physicists' worship of empirical results, and their denigration of ‘mere theory,’ to win them over.”

The Committee was indeed won over. On November 10, 1922, the Nobel Prize for Physics was given to Niels Bohr, and the delayed 1921 Prize awarded to Albert Einstein, “especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect.” Einstein, en route to Japan, wasn’t able to attend the official ceremony to accept his award. But according to Friedman, it wasn’t the medal that he cared about, anyway—it was the money. As the German mark decreased in value after the war, Einstein needed a hard foreign currency for alimony payments to his ex-wife. Moreover, the terms of his 1919 divorce proceedings dictated that she was already entitled to all the money “from an eventual Nobel Prize.” Hunt says calling attention to these financial arrangements “brings out the fact that Einstein was a much more worldly and savvy man than his later public image would suggest.”

Einstein gave his official Nobel lecture one year later, to a large and attentive audience that included the Swedish King, Gustav Adolf V. Einstein was told to speak about the photoelectric effect. But the speech—which began: “If we consider that part of the theory of relativity which may nowadays be regarded as bona fide scientific knowledge…”—focused instead on the subject for which he clearly thought he should have won the prize.

Robert Marc Friedman’s story leaves another attentive audience with a new history lesson: “Einstein understood that the golden Nobel medallion is etched with human frailties…and like Einstein, perhaps we should also avoid the temptation of dancing around this modern golden calf.” Hunt says Friedman’s tale gave an oft-overlooked perspective on the way science was practiced and praised in the early 20th century.  “The decisions of the Nobel committees are often treated by the press and public as the voice of god,” Hunt says, but Friedman’s research brought to light “how political the deliberations of the Nobel committees sometimes were—and presumably still are.”


Charlotte the Editor said...

"But one of Einstein’s 1905 papers, the special theory of relativity, he did away with the notion of absolute space and time—effectively turning the standard Newtonian model on its deterministic head."

--It should say "But in one...

Zach said...

And on top of that, Einstein wasn't really determinism's enemy number one. God doesn't play dice and all that. I like to think that he his tongue was more than a little bit in his cheek during the EPR debate, though. Is this a review of some book by Friedman?

Nice meeting you the other night.

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