The background: The big news in the science world this week is that, on Thursday, it will be officially announced that LIGO has detected gravitational waves. Some people have even started talking about a Nobel Prize. I agree that this is a momentous accomplishment and these people deserve all the nerd glory the world has to offer; that said, I feel that, in a fair world, this Nobel Prize should be shared between LIGO and (posthumously) Albert Einstein. After all, he is the one that came up with the theory of physics that predicts things like gravitational waves.

The observation: Nobel Prizes can't be awarded to deceased individuals; the Nobel Committee doesn't award Prizes for theoretical work before its predictions are experimentally confirmed; and theoretical physics is churning out ideas that can't be directly tested with today's technology and resources. Put these factors together, and I have this uneasy feeling that Englert and Higgs might have been the last theorists to receive a Nobel Prize. It really looks like Stephen Hawking and Ed Witten, which are widely recognized as among the best theoretical physicists ever, will never get one. For practical purposes, the Nobel Prize in Physics has become the Nobel Prize in Engineering Physics.

The question: are there any theoretical physicists that are young enough, their work groundbreaking enough, and the testing technology sufficiently within our current reach, that a Nobel Prize could reasonably be awarded to them?

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    For once, there is much more to theoretical physics than cosmology and high energy particles. Condensed matter, quantum optics, mathematical modelling... are all hot topics of research, that can also keep a very close contact with the lab. On the other hand, if one publishes ground breaking work as a part of their PhD, the experimentalists have around 60 years to come up with a confirmation.
    – Davidmh
    Feb 9, 2016 at 15:31
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    Witten doesn't need a Nobel prize. He has a Fields medal. Feb 9, 2016 at 16:16
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    There have been numerous Nobels to theoreticists over the past 20 years in solid state physics. Many of the recent Nobels have also jointly gone to people who participated in developing the theoretical underpinning of what was earlier or later experimentally observed. Feb 9, 2016 at 22:41
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    @WolfgangBangerth And not only in solid state physics, but also in optics, like Claude-Cohen Tannoudji e Roy J. Glauber: both are theoreticians. Feb 9, 2016 at 22:59
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    Saying that Stephen Hawking is "widely recognized as among the best theoretical physicists ever" sounds like something a person outside the field would say. Hawking is certainly one of the most famous theoretical physicists! But I have not heard my colleagues in the field refer to him with the same reverence that laymen do. (Note: I am not a physicist either.)
    – Tom Church
    Feb 10, 2016 at 3:13

2 Answers 2


We've now seen three Nobel prizes in physics awarded since the posting of this question (February 2016), and I think it's fair to say that the answer has proven to be an unequivocal 'yes'. So far, four out of nine physics Nobel laureates have been theorists.

The 2016 prize was awarded to three condensed matter theorists (Thouless, Haldane, and Kosterlitz) "for theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter". The 2017 prize was awarded to Weiss, Barish, and Thorne "for decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves." Of these, Kip Thorne is very much a theorist, known for his work in relativity and astrophysics, and for being one of the authors of that one thick book with an apple on the cover.

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    An empirical answer to a theoretical question :)
    – Bryan Krause
    Jul 19, 2019 at 16:18

I have heard it suggested that a prize might be awarded for Density Functional Theory. It is a very widely applied theory, unlike Hawking's black hole predictions. The theory is relatively new and continues to evolve, so major contributors are still alive. I will not name names. It is possible a chemistry prize might be awarded instead of a physics prize.

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    But Kohn did win a Nobel Chemistry prize for DFT, back in 1998? Feb 11, 2016 at 11:21

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