Thursday, 20 November 2014

The most obscure physics laureate?

We all love a good Nobel Prize, but every now and then there is a flare up over the winners. Sometimes it is because of the arbitrary restriction to three winners who must be alive at the time of the award. Sometimes, as when Jocelyn Bell appeared to be pushed aside for her boss Anthony Hewish (much to the irritation of Fred Hoyle), it is an apparent unfairness. But most often, I suspect, in the case of the physics Prize it is due to the Prize committee's inability to decide just what physics is.

There have been a number of examples of awards that were really for inventions or technology. Admittedly these inventions were usually based on physics - but it would be tenuous to call them a fundamental breakthrough in physics itself, as the inventors were making use of an existing physical concept. So, for instance, the award for the laser (or more accurately the maser, as neither Gordon Gould nor Theodore Maiman were included, arguably the key names for the laser) should arguably have gone to Einstein, who came up with the theory in the first place.

But one thing the dalliance with inventions gives us is the inclusion of the man who must, surely, be the most obscure physics Nobel laureate ever: Gustaf Dalén. Without peeking below, I challenge anyone from working physicists to those with a casual interest in science to say what Dalén achieved to win the 1912 prize.

Here's his picture to consider while you work it out:

Gustaf Dalén: public domain image from
Nobel Prize website

You must admit, he looks cool. Possibly the hero of a steampunk romance.

Okay have you guessed? Have one more attempt before the reveal.

Gustaf Dalén won his prize for his 'invention of automatic regulators for use in conjunction with gas accumulators for illuminating lighthouses and buoys.' 

Not only was there no real physics here, the control of gas-lit lighthouses is not exactly going to have a long-term impact on life, the universe and... well, anything really.

Nice one, Gustaf.

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