The Tedious Inevitability of Nobel Prize Disputes

By Carl Zimmer | October 6, 2011 10:02 am

Once more we are going through the annual ritual of the Nobel Prize announcements. The early morning phone calls, the expressions of shock, the gnashing of teeth in the betting pools. In the midst of the hoopla, I got an annoyed email on Tuesday from an acquaintance of mine, an immunology grad student named Kevin Bonham. Bonham thought there was something wrong with this year’s Prize for Medicine or Physiology. It should have gone to someone else.

Kevin lays out the story in a new post on his blog, We Beasties.  The prize, he writes, “was given to a scientist that many feel is undeserving of the honor, while at the same time sullying the legacy of my scientific great-grandfather.” Read the rest of the post to see why he feels this way.

Kevin emailed me while he was writing up the blog post. He wondered if I would be interested in writing about this controversy myself, to give it more prominence. I passed. Even if I weren’t trying to carry several deadlines on my head at once, I would still pass. As I explained to Kevin, I tend to steer clear of Nobel controversies, because I think the prize is, by definition, a lousy way to recognize important science. All the rules about having to be alive to win it, about how there can be no more than three winners–along with the lack of prizes for huge swaths of important scientific disciplines–make these kinds of disputes both inevitable and tedious.

The people behind the Nobel Prize, I should point out, have done a lot of good. Their web site is a fine repository of information about the history of science. I’ve tapped it many times while working on books and articles. There’s also something pleasing to see the world drawn, for a couple days at least, to the underappreciated byways of science. If the Nobel Prize makes more people aware of quasicrystals, the Prize is doing something unquestionably wonderful.

But the vehicle that delivers this good is fundamentally absurd. The Nobel Prize rules say no more than three people can win an award, for example. This year’s prize for physics went to Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt, and Adam Riess for their work on the dark energy that is accelerating the accelerating expansion of the universe. Half went to Perlmutter, and a quarter went to Riess and Schmidt. But, of course, scientists do not work in troikas. It wouldn’t even make sense to say that three people could accept the prize on behalf of three labs. Science is a stupendously complex social undertaking, in which scientists typically become part of shifting networks over the course of many years. And those networks are not just made up of happy friends collaborating on projects together. Rivals racing for the same goal can actually speed the pace towards discovery.

Now, some individual scientists are certainly remarkable people. But the Nobel Prize doesn’t merely recognize them for being remarkable individuals. The citations link each person to a discovery, as if there was some sort of equivalence between the two. But discoveries are usually a lot bigger than one person, or even three.

In his wonderful book The 4% Percent Universe, Richard Panek describes the history of the research that led to this year’s physics prize. I read the book to review it for the Washington Post, and I was particularly taken by a story at the end. In 2007, the Gruber Prize, the highest prize for cosmology research, was awarded for the research. Schmidt haggled with the prize committee until they agreed to widen the prize to all 51 scientists who had been involved in the two rival teams. Thirty-five of them traveled to Cambridge for the ceremony. It would have been fun to watch Schmidt go up against the Nobel Prize committee. He would have lost, of course, but at least he would have made an important point.

Should scientists get credit for great work? Of course. But that’s what history is for. Charles Darwin and Leonardo da Vinci never got the Nobel Prize, but somehow we still manage to remember them as important figures anyway. The time that’s spend arguing over whether someone should get fifty percent of a prize or twenty-five percent or zero percent could be spent on much better things, like more science.

[Update: Revised post to clarify that the prize was for research on the acceleration of the universe, not the dark energy many think is driving the acceleration.]

 

This post was originally published on Carl Zimmer’s Discover blog, The Loom.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics
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About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.

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