Obviously not all cases are such that a theory is presented without experiment, and then the necessary experiment is done separately by another person...

But when this IS the situation, to whom does the prize generally go, in this case?

Specifically I'm curious about astrophysics / dark matter / dark energy. In case there isnt enough history there to answer on these, is why I originally asked the general question.

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    $\begingroup$ Your tags suggest that you are interested in the Nobel Prize in Physics. If so, then I suggest that you add this to your question. $\endgroup$ Dec 8, 2021 at 8:11

1 Answer 1


Statistically, experimenters are typically favored. One reason is that theories are only Nobelized when confirmed, and that may take too long for getting the prize. Another is that new experimental results tend to be less controversial and more common than major new theories. A prominent example of the opposite is the Nobel for DNA, where Watson and Crick got the prize, but Wilkins did not.

From How (Not) to Win a Nobel Prize in Physics on Inside Science:

"Roughly two-thirds of Nobel Prizes in physics have gone to experimentalists and one-third to theorists. Theorists in general run the risk of being too far ahead of their time. They may come up with groundbreaking theories that can’t be proven until much later, when experimental techniques have advanced.

One of physics’ most famous theorists, Albert Einstein, never officially received a Nobel Prize for arguably his most famous theory -- relativity. Though anti-Semitism likely played a role in the Nobel committee’s reluctance to recognize Einstein, the committee maintained that it was because relativity hadn’t been proven. The 1921 physics prize was ultimately given to Einstein in 1922 (long story) for his work on theoretical physics in general, and especially for discovering the law of the photoelectric effect -- the phenomenon where electricity can be generated by exposing certain materials to light. Stephen Hawking, one of the world’s most famous astrophysicists, passed away earlier this year [2018], without earning the Nobel Prize."

  • $\begingroup$ This is a great, succinct, answer. Just to add, another reason why experiments have an upper hand is that some prizes are awarded to advances in instrumentation, rather than an experimental discovery. Examples would be Michelson's prize for the development of the Michelson interferometer or Percy Bridgman's one for the development of a high-pressure anvil $\endgroup$ Dec 8, 2021 at 12:44
  • $\begingroup$ In case you want to just add the specific question, usually prizes are shared between theorist and experimenter, as in the case for the 1902 prize, half went to Lorentz for the theory of the Zeeman effect, and half to Zeeman for the experimental discovery. There are though cases in which the theorist have all died by the time of the award and just the experiment gets the prize, as happened with neutrino oscillations $\endgroup$ Dec 8, 2021 at 12:50
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    $\begingroup$ It's not the case that Wilkins did not get the prize: He did. Did you mean Franklin? Who was deceased, and ineligible for that reason? $\endgroup$
    – tim
    Dec 19, 2021 at 11:37

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