What will this year's winner of the Nobel Prize in physics be doing when the Swedish Academy of Sciences makes its decision in October? When the call comes from Stockholm (winners from the United States usually are notified in the early hours of the morning), will the laureate be sound asleep, dreaming about superstrings or superconductivity? Or will he or she be wide awake, pondering the next equation, the newest experiment?

When Alfred Nobel wrote his will in November 1895, he established what many consider to be the most prestigious of all awards. Yet actual guidelines set down in the will for the Nobel Prize are, for the most part, sparse. The prizes were to go "to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind." For the field of physics, in particular, Nobel directed that the award go to the person "who shall have...

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