Einstein’s Nobel heritage

An overview of Nobel prizes connected with relativistic physics

An article by Markus Pössel

Einstein’s theories of relativity are the foundation for much of modern physics – small wonder that there is a sizeable number of Nobel prizes related to relativity. Here’s a list with brief descriptions of the most important ones:

1921 – Albert Einstein

Ironically, while relativity has led to so many Nobel prizes, it only played a minor role in Einstein’s own. To be sure, it is prominently featured in the laudatio by Svante Arrhenius, however, the Nobel committee’s brief prize announcement is more vague, referring to Einstein’s “services to Theoretical Physics” with explicit mention given only to his finding the law of the photoelectric effect.

Nobelprize.org: Physics 1921

1933 – Paul Dirac (jointly with Erwin Schrödinger)

Dirac’s prize was the first of many given for work on the connection between special relativity and quantum theory. He was the pioneer of relativistic quantum mechanics, formulating what is nowadays called the Dirac equation, the first equation for the quantum behaviour of relativistic matter particles. Using his equation, he discovered a fundamental relativistic quantum phenomenon: the fact that, for every species of relativistic particle, there must be a kind of mirror image, a species of corresponding anti-particles. In a world in which electrons exist, which carry negative electric charge, Dirac’s equation demands the existence of anti-electrons, particles with the same mass as electrons, but a positive electric charge.

Nobelprize.org: Physics 1933

1936 – Carl D. Anderson (jointly with Victor F. Hess)

What, at first sight, appeared to be a stumbling stone for Dirac’s theory – where were those anti-electrons he postulated? – later turned into a triumph. Among the particles of cosmic rays, a highly energetic particle radiation reaching the earth’s surface from space, Carl Anderson discovered traces of anti-electrons. Diracs anti-particles, with the same mass as electrons but the opposite electric charge, really do exist! Today, antiparticles are a basic feature of all models of particle physics, and anti-electrons are now commonly called positrons.

Nobelprize.org: Physics 1936

1949 – Hideki Yukawa

The force that bonds protons and neutrons together to form atomic nuclei has a strictly limited range: while it keeps the nucleus stable, even a neutron flying by outside, a trillionth of a metre distant, is out of range and will not feel any influence. At the time Yukawa thought about this strange situation, physicists already knew of carrier particles and their role concerning elementary forces: forces are transmitted by particles. For instance, on a quantum level, the electric repulsion between two two electrons is explained by the exchange of photons flitting back and forth. The emission and absorption of these photons by the electrons is the way that the influence is transmitted from one electron to the other. Yukawa found an explanation for the short-range nuclear force that is directly linked to the fact that the carrier particle in question has a non-zero (rest) mass. He was able to derive this directly from a relativistic quantum equation for massive particles called the Klein-Gordon equation.

Nobelprize.org: Physics 1949

1951 – John Cockcroft and Ernest T. S. Walton

Cockcroft and Walton bombarded atomic nuclei of the element Lithium with fast protons, thus creating helium nuclei in the first controlled transmutation of one species of nucleus to another. Summing up the energies before and after the transmutation, they managed to test directly the equivalence of mass and energy postulated by Einstein: the helium nuclei that result have a slightly lower mass than that of proton and lithium nucleus combined, and this difference in mass leads to a kinetic energy of the resulting nuclei that is higher than expected by non-relativistic physics, exactly following Einstein’s prediction.

Nobelprize.org: Physics 1951

1955 – Willis Eugene Lamb and Polykarp Kusch

Lamb and Kusch performed precision measurements, establishing the reality of two effects that ordinary relativistic quantum theory à la Dirac cannot explained: what’s now called the Lamb shift and a deviation of the electron’s magnetic properties from Dirac’s prediction. These measurements contributed to the eventual development of relativistic quantum field theories, concretely: of quantum electrodynamics, the relativistic quantum theory of the electromagnetic field.

Nobelprize.org: Physics 1955

1959 – Emilio Segrè and Owen Chamberlain

In relativistic quantum theories, for every species of particle, there is a species of antiparticles. Segrè and Chamberlain received their prize for the discovery of anti-protons, the antiparticles of protons, one of the two species of particle atomic nuclei are made of.

Nobelprize.org: Physics 1959

1963 – Eugene Wigner (jointly with Maria Goeppert-Mayer and J. Hans D. Jensen)

At the heart of special relativity is the relativity principle, in brief: observers that are in motion relative to each other are nevertheless on an equal footing; the physical laws are exactly the same for each of them. In physics, such equality is called a symmetry. Whether or not a physical theory, be it a model of electromagnetic phenomena, fluid dynamics or a theory of heat, is consistent with the relativity principle can be examined in a general framework that analyzes the theory’s symmetries. Wigner was the first to apply this framework to quantum theory, laying the foundation of modern relativistic quantum field theories.

Nobelprize.org: Physics 1963

1965 – Shin-Itiro Tomonaga, Julian Schwinger, Richard P. Feynman

The development from earlier relativistic quantum mechanics to relativistic quantum field theories has already been mentioned. In these quantum field theories, not only the matter particles, but also the forces acting between them follow quantum laws. The distinction between matter and forces becomes blurred: The action of a force is represented by the exchange of particles, the corresponding carrier particles. Tomonaga, Schwinger and Feynman were the first to formulate such a theory of relativistic quantum forces for the simplest case, that of the electromagnetic force, creating what is known as quantum electrodynamics. This was the starting point leading to the formulation of the more general quantum field theories of the standard model of particle physics and to more relativistic Nobel prizes which are not included in this list as they do not add any fundamentally new cross-links with relativity.

Nobelprize.org: Physics 1965

1974 – Antony Hewish (jointly with Martin Ryle)

The discovery that won Hewish his prize, although not a consequence of relativity, is nonetheless an important step for relativistic astrophysics. Together with his graduate student Jocelyn Bell-Burnell, Hewish discovered the first pulsar, opening up the field of observational astronomy of neutron stars.

Nobelprize.org: Physics 1974

1978 – Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson (jointly with Pjotr Leonidovich Kapitsa)

Penzias and Wilson won their Nobel prize for the first detection of the cosmic background radiation, an afterglow from the early, hot days of the universe. With their discovery, they confirmed a prediction made by Ralph Alpher and Robert Herman in 1948 on the basis of the relativistic big bang models.

Nobelprize.org: Physics 1978

1983 – Subramanyan Chandrasekhar and William A. Fowler

Chandrasekhars work on the stability of White Dwarfs, the final states of low-mass stars, was the beginning of a journey that would lead scientists to stellar black holes. The Chandrasekhar mass named after him is the maximal mass for which the inner pressure of the White Dwarf can resist further collaps. For remnants with higher mass, the collapse continues, forming a neutron star or even a black hole.

Fowler won the prize for his research on the origin of the chemical elements in the universe. Part of that work concerned another prediction of the big bang models of relativistic cosmology, namely that of the formation of light elements in the early universe.

Nobelprize.org: Physics 1983

1993 – Russell A. Hulse and Joseph H. Taylor

Hulse and Taylor discovered the first binary pulsar: a binary in which a pulsar and a companion star orbit each other. Their observations of this pulsar, called PSR1913+16, led to the first indirect detection of gravitational waves.

Nobelprize.org: Physics 1993

2002 – Riccardo Giacconi (jointly with Raymond Davis Jr. and Masatoshi Koshiba)

Giacconi won the prize for his pioneering work in X-ray astronomy, in part for the first detection of objects that, to the best of our knowledge, are black holes.

Nobelprize.org: Physics 2002

2006 – John C. Mather and George F. Smoot

Mather and Smoot received their prize for their contributions to the COBE satellite mission, in particular for precise measurements of the blackbody nature of the cosmic background radiation (confirming an important prediction of the big bang models) and for detecting the tiny fluctuations in the background radiation which are the first seeds for the large scale structure we can observe in the universe today.

Nobelprize.org: Physics 2006

2011 – Saul Perlmutter, Brian P. Schmidt, and Adam G. Riess

Perlmutter received half of the prize, Schmidt and Riess a fourth each. They were awarded for their discovery of the accelerated expansion of the universe. They used the observation of supernovae in distant galaxies. This discovery, published in 1998, shook cosmology to its foundations. Until then, cosmology assumed that expansion would slow down over time. Without knowing exactly what its nature is, the acceleration is attributed to the “dark energy”.

Nobelprize.org: Physics 2011

2017 – Rainer Weiss, Barry C. Barish, and Kip S. Thorne

Half of the prize went to Weiss, the other half to Barish and Thorne. They all received the award for their contribution to the LIGO Observatory and the successful first measurement of gravitational waves in 2015.

Nobelprize.org: Physics 2017

2020 – Roger Penrose, Reinhard Genzel, and Andrea Ghez

Roger Penrose received half the prize, Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez together received the other half. Roger Penrose’s work on the formation of black holes as a robust prediction of general relativity was honoured, as was the discovery of the supermassive black hole at the center of our Galaxy by Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez.

Nobelprize.org: Physics 2020

Further Information

For background information on Einstein’s theories of relativity and their numerous consequences, check out Elementary Einstein.

Markus Pössel

is the managing scientist at Haus der Astronomie, the Center for Astronomy Education and Outreach in Heidelberg, and senior outreach scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy. He initiated Einstein Online.


Cite this article as:
Markus Pössel, “Einstein’s Nobel heritage” in: Einstein Online Band 02 (2006), 02-1006