Are Nobels predictable?

School has started and Halloween is around the corner, which can only mean one thing—it’s Nobel season. On Tuesday, October 6, the Nobel committee will be announcing this year’s Nobel laureates in physics at a press conference at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm. In the hours beforehand, a handful of physicists around the world will be tossing and turning in their beds or frantically checking their cell phone’s reception while giving that day’s lecture, wondering if they’re about to get the “magic call”, just minutes before the public announcement, telling them they’ve won the Nobel prize.

The “magic call” has been notorious for catching previous winners unawares, asleep, out shopping, and down at the pub. But the Nobel prize committee is always eerily successful in reaching their target, in a way that’s reminiscent of, well, magic. Richard Ernst, for instance, was on a plane from Moscow to New York when the captain came out of the cockpit, walked down the aisle, and informed him that he’d won the 2001 Nobel Prize in chemistry. A rarity was biologist and 2008 Nobel laureate in chemistry Martin Chalfie, who heard the phone ringing in the distance in the middle of the night and turned over for another snooze.

But why should Nobel laureates be so in the dark about their nomination? The Nobel committee invites a select group of scientists all over the world to submit nominees, chooses a short list, and gets the opinion of experts in the relevant topics before deliberating. Doesn’t the committee give any hint of whom they’re considering? The answer is a resounding, official “no.” While I suspect the list leaks out at least to some extent, not only is everyone involved forbidden from breathing a word about the nominees, that restriction holds for a half century!

According to the Statutes of the Nobel Foundation, information about the nominations is not to be disclosed, publicly or privately, for a period of fifty years. The restriction not only concerns the nominees and nominators, but also investigations and opinions in the awarding of a prize.

While those in the know keep mum, everyone else clamors to foretell the winners. Thomson Reuters recently released their list of Nobel contenders. They base their Nobel predictions on citations, choosing the people with both the vast amounts of citations in total and who have written high-impact papers, or papers that have individually piled up reams of citations:

Citation Laureates have been cited so often in the last two or more decades that these scientists typically rank in the top 0.1% in their research areas. Not only do Citation Laureates have stratospheric citation totals, they also typically write multiple high-impact reports, and do so over many years.

How good are the predictions? Since they started announcing their tips in 1989, Thomson Reuters have only completely missed the mark on two occasions. Other than that, they seem to correctly predict at least one of the prizes—but keep in mind that they choose several possibilities for each category. Whether that’s terribly successful statistically, I leave to the Enrico Fermis of the world. But research suggests that citations are losing their influence on determining the Nobel prize as author lists grow and fields become more diverse. A paper on the arXiv early this year looked at whether Google’s PageRank algorithm, which bases a page’s rank on the number of pages that link to it, could correctly spin a pile of citations into a Nobel.

Peter Higgs: not-so-hotly-tipped for the Nobel.

Whether you’ve got an algorithm or just a hunch, it’s fun trying to guess who the committee will choose. ScienceBlogger Chad Orzel has started a betting pool for this year’s prizes. If you’re low on ideas, check out the hotly-tipped physics contenders according to Thomson Reuters, which includes decorated quantum physicist Yakir Ahoronov and metamaterials pioneer Sir John Pendry. Surprisingly or not, the list doesn’t include Peter Higgs, who made the Wall Street Journal’s short list—multi-billion dollar accelerators are not as weighty as citations, apparently.

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