Oct 8, 2008

Only seminal contributions deserve the Nobel Prize

As we all know, October is the month in which Nobel prizes are awarded. The prize for Economics will be awarded last; they started last Monday with Physics. The prize was assigned to the physicians Yoichiro Nambu (½ of the prize); Makoto Kobayashi and Toshihide Maskawa (the other ½ of the prize). The former was rewarded "for the discovery of the mechanism of spontaneous broken symmetry in subatomic physics" - whatever that means. The two latter "for the discovery of the origin of the broken symmetry which predicts the existence of at least three families of quarks in nature". The scientific community is quite unanimous in recognizing the seminal contribution of Yoichiro Nambu. Can the same be said of Kobayashi and Maskawa's work? Not really! They only generalized a previous result by another physician, Nicola Cabibbo. According to most experts, the generalization was quite obvious - and, by definition, it does not constitute a seminal contribution. Some physicists, not only Italian ones, argued that Cabibbo was excluded because the prize cannot be awarded to more than three people…in which case it would have made more sense to award it to Nambu and Cabibbo.
To make a parallel with Economics - and will all due respect - it is as if the Nobel was given to Krugman (½ of the prize for his seminal contribution in new trade theory) and to Falvey and Greenaway (the other ½ of the prize) for this article. Excluding this guy.
Personally, I feel sorry for Mr. Cabibbo - who invented the bloody complicated stuff. And I hope nothing like this will happen in Economics next Monday. And it won't: the prize will go to Sargent/Hansen/Sims, as our friend Ugo Panizza foresees, and everybody will approve.

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