Oral History Highlights: Should-Have Won-A-Nobel Edition

Oral History Highlights: Should-Have Won-A-Nobel Edition

Chien-shiung Wu.

Chien-shiung Wu. Betsy Ancker-Johnson states in her oral history interview that she thinks that Wu should have won a Nobel. Credit: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Physics Today Collection. Catalog ID Wu Chien-shiung A4.

Nobel season is an exciting time for the field of physics. This year, we congratulate Pierre Agostini, Ferenc Krausz, and Anne L'Huillier, who are now 2023 Nobel Laureates "for experimental methods that generate attosecond pulses of light for the study of electron dynamics in matter." For more on this year's Laureates, please see the American Institute of Physics resource page.

Whenever the prize in physics is announced, we always have a flurry of activity to see if the Niels Bohr Library & Archives happens to have an oral history or photos that involve the laureates, as we sometimes do. Although we don’t have any this year, this got me thinking: there are so many scientists involved with remarkable research, and many people who have expressed that their colleague or mentor deserve the award. This is a complex subject that I can’t hope to scratch the surface of in a short blog post, although, I will point out that Anne L’Huillier is now only the 5th woman to become a Nobel Laureate in Physics since the prize’s inception in 1901, and that three of the five women got the award in the last six years (2018 Donna Strickland, 2020 Andrea Ghez, 2023 Anne L’Huillier).

However, I thought it would be interesting to see what our oral history interviews have to say on Nobel awards. Here is a short list of our oral histories in which the subject says someone should have won a Nobel, which was easy to find because our oral history interview transcripts are full-text searchable!


1) Louis Witten advocating for Robert Dicke: “And Bob Dicke was there, and he always impressed me. I think he should have won the Nobel Prize…”

2) Jocelyn Bell Burnell discusses the Nobel that many thought she should have been awarded:

“... And then on the midday news program was the announcement about the Nobel Prize. And the wife of one of the faculty heard this, and he came rushing along to my office to relay the news, I think expecting me to blow a fuse. And I didn’t, because I have a strategic sense, a political sense. This was the first time that a Nobel Prize in Physics had gone to anything astro. For the first time astronomy and astrophysics had been brought within the purview of physics. And I saw that as extremely important and nice incidentally those pulsars were part of it. But I wasn’t cross or anything. It did have a slight social effect in the sense that it said to me that, ‘Men get Nobel Prizes and women stay at home looking after babies,’ because I had a wee one by then. So it’s had some consequences for me in my self-understanding, but I was very, very pleased that a Nobel Prize in Physics was going to astronomy.”

 “I think there was fairly widespread feeling amongst my generation, sort of postdoc generation, that things had been a little bit unfair. And I can remember for instance I was one of the editors of the Observatory magazine. There were four or five editors — I think four of us at that time — and there was a question of whether we should put a note in an issue of the Observatory congratulating Martin Ryle and Tony Hewish. And I was for it, but the other three editors said, wrote, ‘Nobel = No Bell.’”

3) Blas Cabrera putting in a word for Bascom Deaver and Bill Fairfank: “For me, the most influential member of the Physics Department was Bascom Deaver. He was an experimentalist studying superconductivity and I got really excited by that research. Bill Fairbank from Stanford, who had been Bascom's thesis advisor, they had together discovered flux quantization, which I always did think should have won the Nobel Prize. But that's one of those things that are always hit and miss. And having the four people with Doll and Nabauer from the German group as well was, part of the issue since the limit was typically three for the Nobel Prize.”

4) Betsy Ancker-Johnson for Chien-Shiung Wu: “Then there was Chien-Shiung Wu, who in my opinion should have won the Nobel Prize... at least shared it for her work in proving parity.”

5) Ephraim Fischbach for Gerry Brown: “Gerry Brown was a towering figure in nuclear physics who is now deceased. In the field of nuclear physics, everybody who knows him, myself included, thinks he should have won the Nobel prize. He's just done so many things.” 

6) Ralph Baldwin for Merle Tuve

“Ronald Doel:

What was your relationship with Merle Tuve?

Ralph Baldwin:

It was a love-hate reaction which we all had and I think I was scared stiff of him. Merle was probably the most dynamic man I ever met. He was as smart a man as I ever met. He could see through the essence of a problem to the core without fail. He drove us — that is why I said ‘hate,’ but love and hate are very closely related — unmercifully during the war because we had to get the project done in time to be of use during World War II. I have as much respect and liking for Merle Tuve as any man I have ever met.


How did the other people at the lab perceive him?


I think it was just exactly the same way. They knew he was a great man. He should have won the Nobel Prize for some of his work on reflecting regions in the atmosphere of the Earth. But, that didn't come about. We all knew he was top grade.”


Interview of Betsy Ancker-Johnson by Orville Butler on 2008 December 8, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/33363

Interview of Blas Cabrera by David Zierler on February 9, 2021 Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/47229

Interview of Ephraim Fischbach by David Zierler on 2020 June 30,Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,College Park, MD USA,www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/44882

Interview of Jocelyn Bell Burnell by David DeVorkin on 2000 May 21, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/31792

Interview of Louis Witten by Dean Rickles and Donald Salisbury on 2011 March 17, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/36985

Interview of Ralph Baldwin by Ronald Doel on 1989 October 25, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/5078

About the Author

Corinne Mona

Corinne Mona

Corinne Mona is the Head Editor of the Ex Libris Universum blog. She is also a Librarian at the Niels Bohr Library & Archives. In addition to a master's degree in library & information science, she also holds advanced degrees in music performance and French. Here at the Niels Bohr Library and Archives, she wrangles books and journals by cataloging, shifting, buying, and promoting them. Corinne considers herself a librarian flutist or flutist librarian depending on the day, as she is also a professional musician and flute teacher. Outside of work, she also loves reading, baking, and studying animals, especially true seals.  One of her favorite books from the library is Women Spacefarers by Umberto Cavallero.

Caption: Astronaut Catherine Coleman is featured in the book Women Spacefarers. She played this traditional Irish flute and tin whistle in space on St. Patrick’s Day in 2011 at the International Space Station. Photo is public domain through NASA.

See all articles by Corinne Mona

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