How Many Nobel Prizes Could Newton Win?
Albert Einstein is once again getting his due for the depth and quality of his contributions to science. The recent discovery of gravitational waves further highlights his extraordinary imagination and unparalleled ability to reenvision the universe.
One fun way to describe his success is to look at how many Nobel Prizes his discoveries would have won, had different physicists separately made them all. Physicist A. Douglas Stone wrote a great piece about this. He counts seven. (For the curious: Special Relativity, General Relativity, photons, work on energy quantization, spontaneous and stimulated emission, DeBroglie waves, Bose-Einstein Condensates.)
Stone continues by envisioning a "fantasy scientist draft" analogous to how fantasy sports players statistically rank athletes and build teams to compete with other fans' teams. His conclusion is that Einstein would be the greatest physicist of all time, chosen number one.
Would you take Einstein first, as the most accomplished, successful, Nobels-per-lifetime statistical leader? You might. But you might instead take his only true peer in the history of science: Isaac Newton.
Let's compare these two scientific goliaths. How many Nobels could Newton have won?
Einstein is renowned for his imagination and ability to intuitively lay out new conceptual models of the universe. Newton's talents were different. His unparalleled logical and mathematical genius allowed him to formulate observations into laws and to prove ideas through rigorous mathematics. When the mathematical machinery he needed didn't fully exist, he invented it. That's what largely inspired RealClearScience Editor Alex Berezow to name Newton the smartest person who ever lived.
While Einstein's physics are still being proved today, Newton's is so monumental, so important, so fundamental, so proven within its realm of validity, that scientists of every sort take it for granted every day. The laws of gravity and motion that Einstein reenvisioned were edits of the commandments first called down from the ether by Newton's blinding brilliance.
Let's enumerate Newton's discoveries.
First, there are the three laws of motion. That's a Nobel Prize.
Next up, Newton combined these first two discoveries and applied them to understanding the orbits of celestial bodies. Kepler, using Brahe's data, produced his laws empirically. Newton essentially derived Kepler's laws from his own*, showing how these orbital laws came from simple physical principles. He went on to use his findings to explain numerous astronomical observations. I think this earns him another Prize.
Newton devoted time to optics: the study of light and instruments that utilize it. He was the first person to describe a modern color theory. Using prisms and simple lenses, he refuted the longstanding idea that pure white light contains no colors, that it is changed into colored light. He correctly concluded that all colors of light consist solely of a combination of the seven basic colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. He describes the perceived color of light as a result of logical processes like transmission and refraction. That's four calls from Stockholm.
Describing light as made of particles was in vogue before it was out of vogue before it was in vogue again. Newton wrote the book on light particles, or corpuscles, that was used for the next century. Wave theories of light then displaced it via their ability to explain more phenomena, including interference and diffraction. Along came Einstein another century later to bring back light particles. This one could go either way. However, holding the dominant theory in a field for a century probably earns you the Nobel.
Newton created the first law that mathematically described heating and cooling, known as Newton's Law of Cooling. This law says that the rate of cooling (within certain limits) is proportional to how much hotter the object is than its environs. The cooler it gets, the slower it continues to cool. My Swedish committee would give this another Prize.
Another thing you may not know about Newton: he invented the telescope that is ubiquitous in astronomy today. The reflecting telescope design circumvents the limitations of telescopes relying on enormous lenses to collect and focus light with a mirror. This is absolutely an enormous invention. As deserving of a Nobel Prize as any invention ever produced. That's seven.
Now, we can look beyond science as well. Nobel Prizes are of course awarded in the field of economics. For 30 years beginning in the 1690s, Newton ran the royal mint. Newton embarked on an enormous program to stop the counterfeiting that was debasing English currency. 10% of English money was funny at the time! He redesigned the coins, standardized the system, and ushered in the gold standard. Later he performed the same service for Scotland. I think that is worth an economics Nobel Prize.
Newton 8: Einstein 7. That's close.
Given that total, and given that much of Einstein's work was to update the fundamental work of Newton, I'm giving this to Newton by a nose. Call Einstein the Tom Brady of physicists, and Newton the slightly greater Peyton Manning of physicists.
*All three of the monumental results above were published in that single book (The Principia).