Many of the ingenious scientific discoveries Stephen Hawking describes have earned their discoverers Nobel Prizes, a mark of public acceptance and acclaim for their efforts on behalf of humanity. Yet the sometimes ironic tone Hawking uses when discussing these prizes indicates the politics that comes with their conferral. This illustrates how even the scientific community, comprised of highly educated people often focusing on the big existential questions, isn’t free from petty rivalries, disagreements, and inaccurate decision-making. As such, Nobel Prizes represent the characteristically human recognition of human achievements—that is, imperfect and open to discussion.
For example, Hawking writes, “Penzias and Wilson were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1978 (which seems a bit hard on Dicke and Peebles, not to mention Gamow!).” Here Hawking refers to Arno Penzias’ and Robert Wilson’s identification of background microwave radiation that the universe emits fairly uniformly in every direction. They discovered this almost by accident, although once they realized what they might have found, they spent years gathering data. Their earlier work confirmed Bob Dicke’s and Jim Peebles’ theory, based on a related suggestion made by George Gamow, that light from the furthest reaches of the universe would only now reach us as microwave radiation because of the red shift from the time/distance it has traveled. Thus, while Penzias and Wilson will go down in history for winning the prize, the other three did not receive the same recognition. The Nobel Prize, though likely well-intentioned, thus is a reflection of humanity’s limits and ability to err even in the face of its great scientific achievements and knowledge.
Nobel Prize Quotes in A Brief History of Time
The hostility of other scientists, particularly Eddington, his former teacher and the leading authority on the structure of stars, persuaded Chandrasekhar to abandon this line of work […] However, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1983, it was […] for his early work on the limiting mass of cold stars.