Opinion by Eoin Ó Colgáin
Without doubt, the pinnacle of scientific achievement is a Nobel Prize. Alfred Nobel’s will stipulated that the prizes should be awarded for the most important discoveries “during the preceding year”, but the complicated nature of validating results means that the Nobel committee don’t rush. A cautionary case is the 1926 Medicine Prize to Johannes Fibigier, awarded for the discovery of cancer-causing parasites, which was later discredited as not the primary cause of the tumour.
So given the time between ground-breaking work and recognition, I wish to comment on goals laid out in Science Foundation Ireland’s (SFI) eight-year strategic plan, Agenda 2020, pertaining to prestigious prizes. Quoting Agenda 2020, one objective concerns the “presence of a top-tier international prizewinning (e.g. Nobel Prize, Fields Medal, European Science Prize, Lasker Prize) scientist leading an SFI-funded team” by 2015 to deliver the prize by 2020. In this piece, I address the likelihood of fulfilling this goal through a Fields Medal or Nobel Prize.
The Fields Medal, commonly referred to the “Nobel Prize for mathematics”, is officially called the International Medal for Outstanding Discoveries in Mathematics. What makes this prize unique is that it is awarded every four-years to mathematicians under 40 years of age. So, to ascertain whether SFI have this prize in mind, we can simply ask how many SFI-funded mathematics principal investigators are there under the age of 40?
Following some informal enquiries at UCC, NUIG, TCD, NUIM and UCD, at first glance it appeared as if this may indeed be the null set and that there are NO mathematicians under 40 funded by SFI. This prompted a UCC colleague to dryly remark that Michael Atiyah (Fields Medal, 1966) used to visit County Cork on camping trips, suggesting this was the closest UCC has come to the prize.
Despite evidence for suitable candidates being scarce, even if they existed, one still has to address quality. While solving a Clay Millenium Prize is sure to get one noticed, an alternative route to a Fields Medal is to publish consistently in top journals, such as Annals of Mathematics, Acta Mathematica or Inventiones mathematicae. The 2011-2012 publications of a prominent recipient of SFI-funding in mathematics, MACSI, the Mathematics Applications Consortium for Science and Industry, reveals that none of the papers of this group were published in the above journals, and instead in journals more suited to mathematical modelling. These are the only SFI-funded mathematicians under 40 in UL. I conclude that it is unlikely SFI are seriously targeting the Fields Medal. So what is their exact strategy?
Science offers more hope. In contrast to the Fields Medal, Nobel prizes are awarded annually and for a variety of subjects, so the chances of landing a Nobel Prize by 2020 are certainly greater. Despite this, one still has to take into account the time window between discovery and recognition. Though not the complete picture, the last 10 years of physics prizes are instructive. The average time scale involved appears to be just shy of two decades; notably, the 2011 prize went for work reported in 1998, the 2009 prize for work from 1969, 2006 for work published in 1992 and the 2004 prize for calculations performed in 1973. The only recent case that fits inside SFI’s eight-year time window is the 2010 Nobel Prize awarded to Geim and Novoselov for the isolation of graphene in 2004, which was exceptionally quick.
While not impossible, SFI funding a Nobel prizewinner will require a great degree of luck and it is not clear how this may be perceived as a “direct” goal, i.e. within the control of SFI. In contrast, any hope of winning a Fields Medal straddles the realms of fantasy and delusion.
Eoin Ó Colgáin (@ocolgain) has degrees from TCD and a PhD from Imperial College London in theoretical physics. He is in exile in Oviedo, Spain and en route to Stony Brook University, New York. He is a co-organiser of the Irish Quantum Foundations conference.
Photo: Physics building in Trinity College Dublin, Copyright ScienceCalling.com