Praise and anger at Nobel science prizes

Past greats: four of the 600-odd people who have picked up a Nobel science prize.

Over their 115-year history, the Nobel prizes have acquired an unrivalled prestige. Yet as the three science prizes are awarded, some are questioning whether the system is fit for purpose.

As he puts it, Michael Kosterlitz was a “young and stupid” researcher when he began to study topological phase transitions. Four decades later, he and two British colleagues have been rewarded for their work with the highest honour in their field: the Nobel prize in physics.

Few could explain their discovery to you. But all agree that the trio are deserving winners. The same goes for the recipients of the chemistry and physiology/medicine awards, also announced this week. Yet even as the scientists are praised, the prizes themselves are drawing criticism.

When Alfred Nobel died in 1896, these three fields were at the forefront of scientific progress. The Swedish chemist, made rich by his invention of dynamite, decided to set up a gong for each. He bequeathed much of his fortune to the prizes, specifying that each could be shared by up to three people.

The Nobel Foundation has faithfully obeyed his will ever since. In the meantime, however, science has changed. Fields such as ecology and public health are now hugely important, yet they go unrecognised by the judges.

Meanwhile, science has become far more collaborative. In many fields, new theories tend to be developed simultaneously by a range of researchers – sometimes together, sometimes independently.

To become award-worthy, they often have to be validated in an experiment, which can involve thousands of technicians. Take Peter Higgs and François Englert: they only won the Physics prize (in 2013) after the existence of a particle they had predicted was confirmed by the world’s biggest particle accelerator.

Cases like this have sparked a debate over how the prizes should be distributed. Given their prestige, this matters. Nobel laureates command respect and huge wages; the difference between winning and losing can make or break a career.

Critics of the system say that its rules are arbitrary. It rewards the few at the expense of the many, distorting people’s understanding of scientific progress. Do these prizes belong in today’s world?

Win some, lose some

The hero-worship that goes with the Nobel prizes is not in the spirit of science, say some. At best, winners get an unfair share of the credit. At worst, they abuse their fame by spreading distasteful ideas – such as Tim Hunt and his sexist comments. The prizes should be awarded to institutions, or scrapped altogether.

The main point of awards is to inspire others, comes the reply. By creating clear role models with engaging personal stories, such as Kosterlitz, the Nobel science prizes achieve this. The Peace prize is sometimes awarded to institutions, but this wishy-washy compromise has only devalued it. Let’s keep the current system: it works.

You Decide

  1. Are public awards good for society?
  2. Does it make sense to split scientific study into categories like chemistry and physics?

Activities

  1. Pick a past winner in one of the three Nobel science categories. In a two-minute speech to the class, explain what they won for, and why it is important.
  2. Choose a field that you think deserves a new Nobel prize category. Make your case in a letter to the Nobel Foundation.

Some People Say...

“Contentment is the only real wealth.”

Alfred Nobel

What do you think?

Q & A

Why should I care about the prizes?
Many winning discoveries have made an obvious difference to the world. Take penicillin, the hugely significant antibiotic medication for which three scientists were rewarded in 1945. Even the more abstract ones can have practical applications: this year’s Physics winner could be used in the creation of new superconductors.
How did the Nobel prizes become so important?
First, the cash. For a long while, they were the most valuable awards around. The committee then built a reputation by picking notable winners; this is partly due to the rigorous selection process, which is carried out by experts. The fact that the prizes span a range of fields from physics to literature has maximised their fame. And, in time, the Nobel brand has become self-perpetuating.

Word Watch

Two British colleagues
David Thouless and Duncan Haldane.
Explain
Let’s try: “topological phase transitions” refers to the ways matter can change (and acquire useful new properties) in extreme circumstances, such as very cold temperatures. See Become An Expert for more.
Each
Nobel also set up Peace and Literature prizes. The Nobel Foundation added one for Economics in 1968.
Particle accelerator
A machine that propels particles at very high speeds. There are thousands around the world serving a wide variety of purposes. The existence of the so-called Higgs boson was confirmed by one, the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva’s CERN institute, built in large part for this very purpose.
Sexist comments
Hunt, a biochemist, faced a backlash after making misogynistic jokes at a conference last year. In Hunt’s defence, Conservative politician Boris Johnson said that Hunt had “made some very important advances for which he won the Nobel prize”.
Devalued
For example, the decision to give the Peace prize to the European Union in 2012 raised eyebrows, given the turmoil on the continent at the time.

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