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Dublin: 12°C Thursday 17 June 2021

That time the Nobel physics prize was accidentally given to the wrong person

Right name, wrong man.

Japan Nobel Physics Takaaki Kajita of Japan, one half of this year's Nobel laureate in physics, receives flowers today after learning of his win Source: AP/Press Association Images

THE NOBEL PRIZE for physics was awarded to Takaaki Kajita and Arthur McDonald earlier today for their work on the study of neutrinos.

What’s a neutrino you may ask? A neutrino is a subatomic particle with practically no mass that is apparently extremely difficult to study effectively.

It’s an enormous achievement obviously, but both Kajita and McDonald can consider themselves lucky they weren’t in the running in 1989 when the Nobel Foundation did its level best to give the prize to the wrong man.

In an interview with the Foundation broadcast today just hours ahead of the announcement of the winner for 2015, the actual 1989 winner Norman Ramsey recalled how the prize committee had contacted another Norman Ramsey first by mistake.

norman The real Norman Ramsey, pictured in 2006 aged 91 Source: CHITOSE SUZUKI/AP/Press Association Images

“They had guessed maybe I might be in Washington DC. There was a Norman Ramsey there. And the chairman of the committee called him,” the real Ramsey recounted in the interview, which was conducted in 2005.

Around 6 am, the son of that Norman Ramsey picked up the phone and was hesitant to wake his father.
And they said we want to tell him he’s received the Nobel prize in physics. This young man said “that’s very interesting since my father’s an economist”.

In the days before social media it was probably an easier mistake to make than one might think. Still though. They probably could have checked to see if there was more than one Norman Ramsey.

The correct Norman Ramsey died in 2011 at 96. He received the prize for his work on atomic clocks.

His namesake didn’t leave a big enough mark on the field of economics to be honoured with a Nobel prize. Nice try though.

Additional reporting Cianan Brennan

Read: Irish-born scientist given a Nobel Prize for his work fighting a horrible parasite

Read: ‘I’m learning from the master here’ – Eamonn Holmes and David Cameron’s TV ‘love in’

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