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Q: Why no Nobel for the theory of Quarks? ( Answered 3 out of 5 stars,   10 Comments )
Subject: Why no Nobel for the theory of Quarks?
Category: Science > Physics
Asked by: physicsbuff-ga
List Price: $10.00
Posted: 13 Jun 2002 18:25 PDT
Expires: 20 Jun 2002 18:25 PDT
Question ID: 25503
I am very curious to know why there has been no Nobel prize awarded
for what seems to be one of the most important (and useful)
theoretical insights in the last half of the 20th century.  Wasn't
there a Nobel for the experimental verification of Quarks?  Surely the
work that Zweig and Gell-Mann did is worthy of the prize.  Is it
politics?  Was it intentional?  Does anyone have some good insight
into this?
Subject: Re: Why no Nobel for the theory of Quarks?
Answered By: mother-ga on 13 Jun 2002 20:39 PDT
Rated:3 out of 5 stars
Hello physicsbuff, and thank you for your question. 

As far as good insight goes, one cannot dispute that yes, 3 Nobel
Prizes for physics have been awarded in direct relation to work on
particle theory as used to postulate or prove the existence of the
quark. Alfred Nobel broadly instructs in his will about how prizes
shall be given to those who, "during the preceding year, 'shall have
conferred the greatest benefit on mankind' and that one part be given
to the person who 'shall have made the most important discovery or
invention within the field of physics.'"
"The Nobel Prize in Physics" (The Nobel e-Museum)

Although both George Zweig and Murray Gell-Mann independently
theorized the existence of the quark in 1964, it was Gell-Mann's work
in the early sixties and the 1964 discovery of the omega-minus
particle (a missing-link in the organization of subatomic particles)
which "brought the theory wide acceptance." Gell-Mann seems to be at
the center of this decades-long body of work which included the theory
about the existence of quarks.
"Gell-Mann, Murray" (

Indeed, in 1969 Murray Gell-Mann alone received the Nobel Prize for
Physics officially for "for study of subatomic particles," work that
essentially proposed the existence of quarks as the fundamental
building blocks of all nuclear particles.
"Murray Gell-Mann - A Brief Biography" (Santa Fe Institute)

George Zweig was still a graduate student when he published "the
definitive compilation of elementary particles and their properties"
in 1963, the work that led up to his theory about the existence of
quarks a year later as he started his assistant professorship at
Caltech. His work from the early 60's to the present has remained
central to particle physics.
"George Zweig - Biographical Sketch" (Research Laboratory of
Electronics, MIT)

Researchers continued to work on proving the existence of quarks,
leading to another Nobel Prize for Physics in 1976 for Burton Richter
and Samuel Ting for evidence of the existence of one of the seven
types of quarks.  The Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded in 1990 to
Richard E. Taylor, Jerome I. Friedman, and Dr. Henry W. Kendall "for
their 'breakthrough in our understanding of matter' that confirmed the
reality of quarks."
"Two Professors Share 1990 Physics Nobel," by Eugene F. Mallove,
10/24/1990 (MIT Tech Talk)

Additional resources:

"A Century of Physics" (The American Physical Society)

"Nobel Prize for Physics" (

"The Development of Quark Theory" (Britannica Online)

"Murray Gell-Mann" (The Nobel Prize Internet Archive)

"The Quark and the Jaguar" by Murry Gell-Mann. W. H. Freeman and
Company, New York (1994).

Search strategy:

history physics quark
"nobel prize" particle physics quark
"george zweig" quark
"murray gell-mann" quark

I sincerely hope this is of help to you.

physicsbuff-ga rated this answer:3 out of 5 stars
While very nicely researched, I'm afraid that your answer lacks the
'insight' I was looking for.  I understand what the public facts are. 
What I was looking for is some insight into how the politics of the
prize committee works.  Unlike what has become the standard
(historical) answer that the committee clearly follows the edict to
give the prize to whomever 'shall have conferred the greatest benefit
on mankind', I have found that the prize is often used as a political
instrument.  The winners are chosen on criteria that I don't
completely understand (which I feel are at least partially based on
the prize winner's standing in the Physics community).  Richard
Feynman nominated Zweig for the prize.  Many well respected physicists
understand that there is something funny going on with the omission. 
A good answer might examine how the physics community was slow to
adapt to a fundamentally new idea, how Zweig fought for the physical
existence of the 'aces', while Gell-Mann left his options open and
repeatedly stated that they may simply be mathematical tricks.  A good
answer might look at how this initial period of uncertainty
contributed to the physics community's bias toward the more
established scientist's point of view (Gell-Mann) over the younger and
less well established scientist (Zweig).  Maybe the answer might even
offer some speculation on how Zweig's move to Neurobiology hurt his
chances for winning the prize.

Subject: Re: Why no Nobel for the theory of Quarks?
From: mother-ga on 14 Jun 2002 06:44 PDT
Hello physicsbuff,

Perhaps this book can offer more insight than I could provide in my
answer: "Cantor's Dilemma" by Carl Djerassi (Doubleday, 1991). Good
Subject: Re: Why no Nobel for the theory of Quarks?
From: daegan-ga on 18 Jun 2002 12:23 PDT
mother-ga wrote: 
>Researchers continued to work on proving the existence of quarks,
>leading to another Nobel Prize for Physics in 1976 for Burton Richter
>and Samuel Ting for evidence of the existence of one of the seven
>types of quarks.  
There are 6 types of quarks, not 7.
(up, down, charm, strange, top, bottom)
Subject: Re: Why no Nobel for the theory of Quarks?
From: quarksandgluons-ga on 18 Jun 2002 14:59 PDT

It seems to me that you already have an answer to this question
formulated in your mind.  Most likely, politics are occasionally
involved in the distribution of all scientific prizes, not just the
Nobel.  But whether or not this is the case, no amount of research is
going to change the opinion cemented in your head.  I believe that
"mother"'s answer was as good as it could be given the scope of your
question.  Just because your philsophy of the politics of science is
different from "mother"'s does not mean that "mother"'s answer was a
bad one.  The point of my little tirade here is that I think it is
wrong to dangle $10.00 in front of a Researcher's nose and then refuse
the answer to your question simply because "mother" cannot read your
mind.  Still, this is a good discussion and I think everyone (except,
perhaps, myself) submitted a worthwhile contribution to the debate.
Subject: Re: Why no Nobel for the theory of Quarks?
From: physicsbuff-ga on 18 Jun 2002 17:05 PDT
Oh, please don't get me wrong.  Mother did a fine job and will
certianly get the money for the question I asked.  The problem is
solely mine.  I have never used this service before and after I
actually read the FAQ, I realized the error of my ways.  I have just
been interested in this question for sometime and thought this might
be the kind of forum that would help me figure it out.

I do have a good idea of what I think about the question, I just
thought someone might set me straight (giving me the insight I was
looking for).  I understand this is way beyond the scope of this
discussion.  I have just started to realize that there are alot of
really great scientists out there that do not get the big awards, yet
their science is just as well done.  I also agree that there are
politics to all of these prizes, I guess part of me would just like to
continue to believe that the the Nobel is somehow exempt from all of
this.  Obviously, it's not.

I'm just young and idealist -- science is just a much more 'human'
endevour than most would like to admit.

The suggested book 'Cantor's Dilemma' is a fine choice.  I will enjoy
reading it.
Subject: Re: Why no Nobel for the theory of Quarks?
From: mother-ga on 18 Jun 2002 17:27 PDT
Hello again! 

I thoroughly enjoyed both researching this question and following the
subsequent discussion. I was wary of expressing my personal opinion
and hoped that the facts would speak for themselves. I now think the
question in your head boils down to "did Zweig alone get robbed of his
prize" and while I don't think he did, I understand your need to know
why. The body of work by these two *contributors* to quark theory were
vastly different and having the Nobel go to both of them at the same
time for the same work would not have been in the spirit of what the
Nobel prize stands for. Also, I agree with quarksandgluons that there
is no prize awarded that is without an underlying agenda. That's my
personal opinion, for which I can't imagine anyone would want to pay.

Have a great day, and I would love to see you comment here about your
conclusions after reading "Cantor's Dilemma."

-- mother-ga
Subject: Re: Why no Nobel for the theory of Quarks?
From: quarksandgluons-ga on 19 Jun 2002 11:34 PDT

I see your viewpoint much more clearly now, and I have to say that I
agree with you.  I didn't mean to imply that you weren't going to
reimburse mother for her answer.  Nobel prizes are great, and I would
love to win one myself, but I agree that the politics and the history
and other social factors are unjustly relied upon in the awarding of
these prizes.  I consider myself an idealist as well, but I'm
painfully aware of our human weaknesses that prevent the prizes from
being awarded fairly.  I think I'll check out that book too. 
Everybody enjoy yourselves

Subject: Re: Why no Nobel for the theory of Quarks?
From: odyssey2001-ga on 24 Jun 2002 18:37 PDT

Perhaps this information will be of help to you:

There seem to be striking similarities between the Nobel Prize given
to Albert Einstein in 1921 and Gell-Mann's award of 1969.

Let us first examine the well known case of Albert Einstein:

Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1921 "for his services to
theoretical physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of
the photoelectric effect."

Einstein discovered the law of the photoelectric effect in 1905, and
his theory was proven right shortly after. So why did the Nobel
Committee wait for 16 years to give him the award?

Because in reality, the photoelectric effect was not the major reason
for giving Einstein the prize. It was Einstein's Theory of Relativity,
which was only confirmed in 1919, which guranteed him the award. But
the Nobel Prize Committee could not risk mentioning something as
revolutionary as relativity, so they gave him a kind of "life
achivement" award while mentioning one of his lesser discoveries.

Now, for the similiraties between Gell-Mann's prize and Einstein's:

Gell-Mann, just like Einstein, contributed many great discoveries to
the world of physics. And just like Einstein's relativity, Gell-Mann's
"quarks" were a revolutionary concept at the time.

Just like Einstein's award which does not mention relativity,
Gell-Mann's award does not mention quarks: The formal statement was
that Gell-Mann received the prize "for his contributions and
discoveries concerning the classification of elementary particles and
their interactions"... Quarks are not mentioned in any way.

Just as Einstein's law of the photoelectric effect was established
well before 1921, so was Gell-Mann's classification established well
before 1969. Already in 1964, when the omega-minus was discovered, it
was obvious the Gell-Mann's classification was sound.

And the most remarkable similarity:

Einstein's unmentioned theory of relativity was dramatically confirmed
by the famous solar-eclipse experiment of 1919, two years before his
award. Gell-Mann's unmentioned theory of quarks was dramatically
confirmed by scattering experiments in 1968-9, a mere year before the

My personal guess is that the two cases are so similar because the
real reasons for giving the prize are similar in both cases.

In other words:

The Nobel Committee decided to give Gell-Mann the prize for the same
reason they gave it to Einstein: A "life achivement" award, triggered
by the scientist's greatest and latest discovery. Or putting it
simply: they really wanted to give Gell-Mann the Prize for the idea of
quarks, but didn't have the courage to admit it formally.

If this was indeed their line of thought, it is obvious why they
didn't give an award to Zweig: It would have been impossible to give
the award to Zweig without mentioning quarks (or "aces") in the

This is, of-course, only an educated guess. But it does seem to
explain the oddities sorrounding Gell-Mann's award - Why Zweig never
got his prize and why the Nobel Committee waited till 1969 to give the
award to Gell-Mann.

You are, of-course, free to accept or reject this theory. But I hope I
succeeded in providing some of the "insight" you requested in your


Subject: Re: Why no Nobel for the theory of Quarks?
From: physicsbuff-ga on 25 Jun 2002 03:42 PDT
Yes, yes, yes.  This answer makes a lot of sense.  I this is the kind
of insight I was looking for.  I'm glad I asked my question.

Thanks, Odyssey, for taking the time to clarify things.
Subject: Re: Why no Nobel for the theory of Quarks?
From: odyssey2001-ga on 25 Jun 2002 07:06 PDT
I'm glad you found my comment helpful.

However, keep in mind that there might be no certain "answer" to your

Yes, the theory I've presented does make a great deal of sense. But
unless one is able to obtain a personal testimony from Nobel Committee
members, there will always be room for substantial doubt.


Subject: Re: Why no Nobel for the theory of Quarks?
From: homeuser-ga on 10 Jul 2002 08:54 PDT
You should also check out "A Beautiful Mind" by Sylvia Nasar.  This is
the biography of John Nash, a genius mathematician who was awarded an
economics Nobel for his work in noncooperative game theory.  (You may
have heard of the movie by the same name starring Russell Crowe.)  The
next-to-last chapter gives a detailed account of the politics behind
his controversial Nobel.  Although the book does not address the quark
Nobel, I think it will provide some of the insight for which you are
looking.  As for details Gell-Mann's award, you may have to wait until
2019 because the records of the selection process are sealed until 50
years after the Prize is awarded.

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