The tedious inevitability of Nobel Prize disputes

By Carl Zimmer | October 6, 2011 2:22 pm

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.]

CATEGORIZED UNDER: General, Top posts

Comments (18)

  1. If all of the other science prizes were as (publicly) recognized and celebrated as the nobel, this wouldn’t be nearly as much of an issue.

    Celebrate Science!

  2. What annoys me about Nobel prize disputes is that a lot of people and a big part of the media seem to have the perspective that every worthy discovery deserves a Nobel prize. Like it’s something you SHOULD get. Like it’s OWED to some people/discoveries. That’s not at all what it is! It’s a prize, an award… decided on by small committees parting from one man’s will from over a hundred years ago. By definition it’s going to be unfair and exclusive, how could it not be? But that’s beside the point because a Nobel prize, indeed any prize, is not a right, it’s a privilege. You can’t demand privileges. In a sense it’s a shame that it has become the “highest achievement in science”, because that’s never what the intention was behind it. Where is the sense in getting disappointed because the Nobel prize isn’t what it wasn’t intended to be?

    The same goes for all awards, but as a commenter before me wrote – if the other scientific awards were equally prominent it wouldn’t be an issue. The Nobel prize would be one among them.

  3. John Douglas Porter

    A lot of people are saying that the Nobel Prize was awarded for “work on the dark energy that is accelerating the expansion of the universe.” However, this is not the case. It is entirely unclear that “dark energy” causes the accelerating expansion. No, the prize was awarded “for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the Universe through observations of distant supernovae.” (Nobel Committee quote)

    Adam Riess spells it out:
    “The Nobel committee were cleverly able to separate the cause and effect. They identified the observation of the acceleration of the universe as what the Nobel prize is for; whereas the cause of it may be dark energy, but it may not. That’s something we are still unsure about. The Nobel prize is not for that.”

    [CZ: Thanks. I'll edit the post.]

  4. @ Carl – I agree with absolutely all of this. Doesn’t make it hurt less though.

    @ Matt – Exactly.

  5. Brian Too

    Many times problems that seem intractable are only viewed that way because obvious points of friction are not addressed.

    It has long seemed to me that the limit on 3 prize winners, and the requirement to be living, are more than a little arbitrary.

    Yes they may address certain (potential) problems, but a rules modification could easily address those situations just as well.

  6. Torbjorn Larsson, OM

    “It is entirely unclear that “dark energy” causes the accelerating expansion.”

    While the Nobel Prize correction was correct, this is wrong. It is entirely clear that dark energy causes the accelerating expansion of the universe, as it is an indelible part of the theory that is the only one that explains the observations to date.

    What is unclear is what dark energy is. (But there is a most reasonable mechanism that predicts many similar observations of vacuum interaction, namely vacuum energy.)

    Also, it isn’t cleverness in physics but in politics that makes the Nobel Committee prefer observations over theories as the Nobel will is geared towards inventions and “discoveries”. Observations is a much easier sell towards the Noble Foundation, that oversees the will and how it is used. This is presumably why Einstein couldn’t get a prize for his theories but for his models based on theories (“explanation” of photoelectric effect).

    [I was curious of why Riess would question dark energy. Turns out he doesn't: "However, we have really just literally and figuratively reached the end of the beginning for acceleration and dark energy. Our quest now is to understand the nature of dark energy, i.e., the physical principles behind its existence." He is just hedging above.]

  7. Torbjorn Larsson, OM

    The dark energy questioning reminds me of what someone said recently, that it will take a long time before people give up on Big Bang theory and accept the new inflationary standard cosmology. Hopefully not before the universe dies the freeze death, but as Bohr once said that it happens when the old believers die out.

    “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.”

    Oh, this falls under the Nobel Foundation too. Not that I think the post is erroneous on this point, but Schmidt (and/or the Committee) would eventually have to haggle it out with them.

  8. Sven

    It’s a valid point, but a legally moot one, since the committees didn’t make the rule that the prize can’t be shared by more than three people. It’s in the statutes of the Nobel Foundation. And besides the fact that foundations created by a will have very little legal room to change their statutes after over 110 years, they especially can’t change the number of people sharing a prize, because they’re obligated by a legal agreement made with Nobel’s heirs back in 1898.

    In short, they likely could not change this even if they wanted to.

    What seems almost as inevitable as disputes over the prize, is people suggesting new prizes or rule changes, without realizing how little legal room there is to maneuver in. They’re effectively the executors of Nobel’s will, so it doesn’t really matter if the rules are absurd or outdated. (And there _are_ lots of absurd and anachronistic such organizations out there, handing out “scholarships for unwed former-milkmaids who want to learn needlepoint”, or what-have-you. I don’t think the Nobel Prize rules are quite so absurd as to ever relegate the Nobels to that status, though.)

    Frankly, I’m not too sure it’s anachronistic either. Even if we all know science isn’t done so much by individuals anymore, with today’s short-attention-span media, having a handful of individuals to focus on probably garners them (and thus the discovery) more attention than awarding a huge group would.

  9. David B. Benson

    Ok, the visible universe is accelerating apart. I see no reason to suspect that the visible part is all there is. Further away there is more matter, maybe much denser, which is gravitationally attracting the visible matter. This hypothesis is perhaps falsifiable, which ought to be enough.

  10. John Kubie

    I remember a few years ago when Ray Damadian took out a whole-page ad in the NY Times protesting that he did not share nobel prize awarded to the developers MRI …

  11. Naumadd

    One should always remember that the prizes are much more about the people giving them than those receiving them. If I choose to give a prize for best book of the year, the choice is about me, not who wins and who loses. My choice is necessarily subjective. If the choice was intended to be objective, I would clearly spell out the specific criteria I intend to use in judging. In that case, the winner doesn’t necessarily represent my personal favorite. My subjective choice is right for me, but the choice is never intended to be “right” according to everyone else. In that sense, it is silly for them to argue amongst themselves about how unfair I was to this book or that book. I judge by my values, not theirs. They are free to choose as they like and, if able, award their favorite(s). I take it for granted that the Nobel committe sometimes awards to those I favor and sometimes not. It’s not really for me to say who they OUGHT to choose. It’s not my prize to give. Is it yours?

  12. David B. Benson

    And then there are less well pubilized but highly prestigeous prizes. For example, the Fields Medals for mathematicians and the Kyoto Prize (~$650,000) for the best work over a wide span of the sciences.

  13. @Daniel and @Sven:

    I absolutely agree with you guys; “whomever provides the money for the prize gets to sets the rules”. There will always be dissenting opinions on EVERYTHING, especially when such a big ($) award is involved. The way the prizes are awarded may not be perfect, but in a society that as a whole mistrusts and misunderstands science, any way of highlighting scientific discoveries and celebrating scientists is a good thing…

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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

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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