The delay in Nobel Prizes and the fact that the prizes are never awarded posthumously means that some of the researchers who deserve it most never receive it.
Yesterday’s Nobel announcement that the prize would go to a trio of black hole researchers, was widely hailed by researchers. For instance, you’d struggle to find any physicist more worthy of being honored than Roger Penrose, who showed that Einstein’s general theory of relativity leads to black holes.
But if there’s one physicist worthy of praise that never got a Nobel, it’s probably Stephen Hawking.
Hawking and Penrose were actually long-time collaborators, with Penrose being one of Hawking’s PhD examiners, and the two collaborated on unraveling the origins of the universe. In a touching tribute, Penrose lamented that his late colleague richly deserved a share of the prize.
Penrose was far from the only researcher to make this point. Martin Rees, Britain’s astronomer royal and fellow of Trinity College Cambridge, said Penrose and Hawking “have done more than anyone else since Einstein to deepen our knowledge of gravity”.
“Sadly, this award was too much delayed to allow Hawking to share the credit with Penrose,” Rees said.
“It’s a shame that Penrose and Hawking didn’t get the Nobel before now,” Luc Blanchet, from the Paris Institute of Astrophysics told AFP.
“This prize comes two years after (Hawking’s) death yet their work took place in the 1960s and its importance was recognised since the 1980s.”
Hawking and Penrose met in London, at a conference, early in their careers. Their work has indeed been lauded for over 30 years, but as Penrose notes, the Nobel committee is hesitant to offer the prize to theoretical researchers — indeed, this year’s two other recipients (Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez) were hailed for practical observations that confirmed some of the theory behind the enigmatic black holes.
But for Hawking, who died in March 2018 after a long neurodegenerative illness, the Nobel came a bit too late. Despite being one of the most iconic figures in modern science and providing crucial contributions to our understanding of the universe, Hawking would never receive a Nobel.
The reason is that the Nobel Prize is not awarded posthumously. This is understandable, on one hand (the prize also comes with a $1.1 m bonus), but on the other hand, it’s at the very least debatable. For starters, this wasn’t always the case — it’s only from 1974 that this rule was implemented, after a re-investigation of founder Alfred Nobel’s will. Hawking is far from the first major figure to never receive an award due to this rule. Most famously, Mahatma Gandhi never received the Nobel Peace prize, and the likes of James Joyce, Anton Chekhov, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Mark Twain never received the Literature prize.
With or without a Nobel, Penrose and Hawking’s contributions are equally valuable and helped us make sense of the universe. They should both be celebrated.