Topological Phases, Folk Music, and Failed Referendum: The 2016 Nobel Prizes.

Lily Gordon ‘17

The Nobel Prizes are awarded yearly in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, peace, and economics to those who, in Alfred Nobel’s vision, “conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.” The 2016 Nobel Prizes raise questions about how we define some of these fields , and—more generally, “benefit to mankind.”

According to the Swedish Royal Academy of Science, this year’s Nobel Laureates in physics “opened the door on an unknown world” of exotic topological phases of matter which have possible future applications in materials science and electronics.

There are numerous awards in mathematics (such as the Field’s Medal), yet there is no Nobel Prize for mathematics. Although it is unclear why no such category exists, there is speculation that Alfred Nobel felt math was simply a tool to be used for the sciences.

Theoretical physics relies on math rather than experimentation. The winners of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physics used an entirely mathematical model in their research of these unusual phases of matter. Their heavy reliance on math begs the question: when the primary or only ‘tool” for scientific research is math, does math—on some level—become the object of study? Topology was such a huge part of the scientists’ work that to dismiss math as just a “tool” feels neglectful. Additionally, there seems to be a double standard: No one would ever demand that literature be utilitarian, yet the Nobel Prize only validates math for some applied purpose or through its relationship to science. Scientific discovery and literature, however, gain merit prior to their application.

The reaction from the general public regarding this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature was much more pronounced in the media and in public dialogue. The prize was awarded to Bob Dylan, famous for his folk music and poetic lyrics.

Some praised the decision, pointing to Dylan’s poetic genius, while others argued that songwriting did not fall within the category of literature and that he did not deserve to win.  Several authors reacted similarly to best-selling novelist Jodi Picoult who tweeted, “I’m happy for Bob Dylan, #ButDoesThisMeanICanWinAGrammy?” For many, the decision brings to mind the year when Winston Churchill was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his powerful speeches and skill as an orator. Both Churchill and Dylan are unconventional winners because their work takes an oral rather than written form.

Some argue Dylan’s lyrics can stand alone as poetry outside their music and that the definition of literature needs to expand to include spoken or sung poetry. Sara Danius, a literary scholar and secretary of the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, said Dylan is akin to Homer, whose poems were also spoken.

The Academy credited Dylan with “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” New York Times pop critic Jon Pareles argued this recognition was a long time coming. He felt Dylan hadn’t done anything especially unique this year to deserve the prize, but rather contributed a lifetime of imagery, allusions, and collisions between blues, news, morals, and sins. Dylan’s verses have been quoted by politicians, protesters, literary scholars, and fans. The award, however controversial, points to a redefining of literature and suggests that indeed “the times they are a changin’.”

Also controversial was the Nobel Prize in Peace, which went out to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos for his efforts in ending the 52-year long guerrilla with the far leftist group FARC. Santos dedicated his presidency toward ending the war, which was rife with kidnapping, murder, and rape. He initially struggled to balance securing justice for those who suffered from the radical violence of FARC with easing tensions between groups. Santos explained, “Making peace is much more difficult than making war because you need…to persuade…[people] to forgive.”

The award choice was controversial because it was given to Santos just days after a referendum to end the conflict failed; Santos did not accomplish peace. In the referendum, voters were asked simply: “Do you support the final agreement to end the conflict and construct a stable and enduring peace?”

The question was loaded. The deal would have offered leniency toward fighters and high-ranking officials of the FARC who had committed war crimes. For many Colombians, the referendum was a decision between justice and peace. The results were that 50.2% rejected the deal and 49.8% supported it. The failure of the referendum came as a moment of embarrassment for Santos, who had already invited foreign leaders for a celebratory signing of the deal.

Some Colombians felt the decision to award Santos the Nobel Peace Prize was unmerited. Marianella Suárez, 36, who voted against the deal, felt Santos was undeserving of the award because “he hasn’t achieved peace, and we don’t know if the FARC will accept jail time for their crimes.” Others feel that the prize will improve negotiations, boost the government’s morale,  and commemorate the good faith efforts Santos made towards peace.

The award decision raises questions as to whether an attempt at peace is as notable as the accomplishment of peace itself. As turmoil continues in Colombia, one can only hope Santos reaches his goal eventually. At the ceremony, Santos said,  “I invite everyone to join our strength, our minds and our hearts in this great national endeavor so that we can win the most important prize of all: peace in Colombia.”

Although some attitudes and values towards literature and international peace relations seem to be evolving, the emphasis on applicative STEM seems unyielding.

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Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos (left). Photo credit: The Inquisitr.
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