Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Physics Nobel highlights high value of table-top science

I really like the award of the 2012 Physics Nobel Prize to Serge Haroche and David Wineland. (I predicted entanglement but not these individuals).
Their studies have made theoretical ideas about quantum decoherence and entanglement actually testable in the lab. A nice summary of the scientific background is here.

One thing the award highlights to me is the high value (return on investment) of table-top science. I would guess that Haroche and Wineland's annual research budgets would be less than one million dollars.  This is to be contrasted to How much does it cost to find a Higgs boson? (about 10 billion dollars).

This award also highlights the incredible and enviable track record of NIST, who have received 4 Nobels in the past 15 years (Bill Phillips, 1997; Eric Cornell, 2001; John Hall, 2005; Phillips, 2012). The former 3 recently testified to the US congress that NIST management style was key to their success.

Table top science is relatively cheap. It is the most cost-effective investment for smaller countries and institutions.


  1. A million dollars a year will buy you a pretty fancy table.....

    But I agree with you Ross, that the award highlights the things that can be achieved by a small group of people with a budget that on a national scale is modest.

    It is interesting that in Chemistry there seem to be no equivalents of the gigantic programs (by head count and budget) in particle physics and astronomy, although there are expensive large facilities (synchrotrons etc.) that serve many different people.

  2. Hi David,

    Thanks for the comment.
    My very rough estimate of approximately $1 million per includes salaries of everyone including the PI, students, postdocs, plus overhead.
    I think this is a closer order of magnitude estimate than $100K.

    You do have an interesting observation that chemistry does not have such large projects.
    But, biology does now. e.g. Human Genome Project.