The dance around the golden Nobel medallion began more than 100 years ago and is still going strong. As icon, myth and ritual, the Nobel Prize is well secured. But what do we actually know about the Nobel Prize?
Shrouded in secrecy and legend, the Nobel Prize first became an object for serious scholarly study after 1976, when the Nobel Foundation opened its archives. Subsequent research by historians of science leaves little doubt: The Nobel medallion is etched with human frailties.
Although many observers accept a degree of subjectivity in the literature and peace prizes, the science prizes have long been assumed to be an objective measure of excellence.
But, from the start, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which awards the physics and chemistry prizes, and the Caroline Institute, which awards those for medicine/physiology, have based their decisions on the recommendations of their respective committees. And the committee members' own understanding of science has been critical in determining outcomes.
From the beginning, the inner world of those entrusted to make recommendations was marked by personal and principled discord over how to interpret Alfred Nobel's cryptic will and to whom prizes should be awarded. While committee members tried to be dispassionate, their own judgment, predilections and interests necessarily entered into their work, and some championed their own agendas, whether openly or cunningly.
Winning a Nobel has never been an automatic process, a reward that comes for having attained a magical level of achievement. Designated nominators rarely provided committees with a clear consensus, and the committees often ignored the rare mandates when a single strongly nominated candidate did appear, such as Albert Einstein for his work on relativity theory. Academy physicists had no intention of recognizing this theoretical achievement "even if the whole world demands it." The prize is a Swedish prerogative.
Moreover, a simple change in the composition of the committee could decide a candidate's fate. Not until committee strongman C. W. Oseen died in 1944 could the theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli -- one of the giants of quantum mechanics -- receive a prize.
Conversely, the Academy of Sciences sometimes rebelled against its committees. Harboring a grudge, one chemist rallied the academy to block the committee's recommendation for the Russian Dmitry Mendeleyev, who created the periodic table.
Even when all involved tried to rise above pettiness and partiality, selecting winners was always difficult -- and remains so. Committee members occasionally confessed privately that often several candidates could be found who equally deserved a prize. Unambiguous, impartial criteria for selecting a winner were not at hand -- and never will be.
The confused situation faced by the Caroline Institute in 1950 reminds us that all prize committees face difficult choices: After four indecisive rounds of preliminary voting, three primary alternatives emerged, but the outcome was still uncertain. When urging a colleague to come to the meeting, one committee member noted that if somebody were to catch cold, a completely different decision might be reached.
The image of science advancing through the efforts of individual genius is, of course, appealing. Yet, to a greater extent than the prizes allow, research progresses through the work of many.
Brilliant minds do matter, but it is often inappropriate and unjust to limit recognition to so few, when so many extremely talented scientists may have contributed to a given breakthrough. The Nobel bylaws do not allow splitting a prize into more than three parts, thereby excluding discoveries that entailed work by more than three researchers, or omitting key persons who equally deserved to share in the honor.
It has also become clear that many important branches of science are not addressed by Alfred Nobel's testament (limited to physics, chemistry, physiology/medicine). Some of the past century's greatest intellectual triumphs, such as those related to the expanding universe and continental drift, have not been celebrated. Environmental sciences -- surely of fundamental importance -- also come up empty. There is nothing wrong with wanting heroes, but we should understand the criteria used to select those whom we are asked to revere.
Why do people venerate the Nobel Prize? There is no easy answer. The cult of the Nobel began even before the first winners were announced. Media fascination whipped up speculation and interest. The creed of the Nobel did not depend so much on the merit of the winners, as much as the understanding that the Nobel was a powerful means to gain prestige, publicity, and advantage.
Even scientists who frowned upon the committees' limitations and sometimes odd choices nevertheless still nominated and lobbied for candidates, knowing that if successful, a winner can draw attention and money to a research specialty, institution, or scientific community.
Is science or society well served by a fixation on prizes and on nurturing a culture of extreme competition? Perhaps once the mystery of the Nobel Prize is reduced, we might reflect on what is truly significant in science. The soul and heritage of science going back several centuries is far richer than the quest for prizes.
Robert Friedman, professor of the history of science at the University of Oslo, is the author of The Politics of Excellence: Behind the Nobel Prize in Science.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
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