Why Do We Care So Much About The Nobel Prize?

Those who study the history of science often seem to understand it better than those who engage in the sport. As evidence, one need look no further than Robert Marc Friedman's "The Politics of Excellence - Behind The Nobel Prize In Science". This book is the result of extensive scholarly research into the prizes for physics and for chemistry and presents a unique and compelling perspective. Anyone interested in Science The Institution ought to be exposed to Friedman’s reflections on the highest certificate of genius.

Friedman's "The Politics Of Excellence"

As a child I almost believed the process of awarding the prize of involved a divine assembly of noble (obviously) scientific titans who debated which sublime discovery about the nature of the universe was truly "the best". Friedman wryly takes us into the muck of the nomination and evaluation process to show us that it is far from divine. The committee would, at times:

...hobble along, arriving at prizewinners by as much through exhaustion as by conviction.

The stories of "vexation and grief" between voting members seem more like what you would find in only the most puerile debates at the local pumpkin fair planning committee.

Most of us encounter the names of Nobel Prize winners via opaque "Did You Know?"-style notes found in the page margins of school textbooks. We associate their names with important equations, reactions, molecules and methods. Friedman fleshes out these names into complex characters embedded in an equally intricate network of relationships. You may have learned the Arrhenius equation or Nernst equation, but you would never know from your textbook that Nernst was once going to enthusiastically demonstrate a new apparatus on a visit to Arrhenius' laboratory but only succeeded in blowing out all the fuses. This was one of the events that led to a bitter divide between these two fathers of physical chemistry that was only somewhat put aside once Nernst lost his two sons in the first World War.

The book lays out the central academic institutions in Sweden and describes the important role of Swedish political culture and tradition. Sweden's neutrality (more neutral for some than others) and evident Germanophilia played an important role in awarding the (withheld) prizes during the two World Wars. A favorite quote describes the nationalism fueled exuberance that was typical for the award ceremonies :

Returning the toasts offered in their honor, the prizewinners and foreign ambassadors saluted all things Swedish. Typically, at the 1904 ceremony Hasselberg delivered in Latin a long toast to Lord Rayleigh, praising British science and culture. In turn, the honored guest responded with a speech "full of humor" noting that of all the countries with which he was acquainted none could match Sweden in its relative numbers of eminent and distinguished men. Which, as noted in reports of the ceremony, prompted "vigorous applauds". In 1905, the German ambassador added in his toast that "the prize carries not only the name of Nobel but that of Sweden, through the entire universe". Perhaps the punch toddy was especially strong that year.

The obstinate intellectual rigidity of some of the "small popes in Uppsala" (recall Sweden is Lutheran) also affected the awarding of prizes. Sophisticated mathematics, astrophysics, quantum theory and relativity are all synonymous with physics today but there is ample evidence that some committee members did not want to see such contributions recognized. Physics had long been a science of precise instrumentation and experimentation and not mathematics. Gullstrand (who won the 1911 prize in medicine) was staunchly against the new physics but clearly did not possess the knowledge required to judge the merit of such discoveries, nor the humility to admit that was the case. It was only by virtue of Oseen's tenacity and lawyerly word-play that Einstein was anointed in 1921 (for the photoelectric effect and not relativity). It almost didn't matter since Einstein was already bigger than the prize by then.

The books reflects on many prize injustices, to name a few, Mendeleev, Boltzmann, Lewis, Hale and Poincare. With examples like these, Friedman steadily cements a critical perspective of the cult of the Nobel Prize. He tells the tale of Sochi Sakata, who had made many fundamental contributions to particle physics. Sakata's colleague Yukawa had reached out to Waller to ask what the Nobel committee thought of Sakata's work as it would comfort Sakata who was on his deathbed. Waller explained to Yukawa that there was nothing notable about what a few Swedish physicists thought of Sakata's clearly outstanding work.

The tale of Lise Meitner's liquid drop model of the nucleus also demonstrates the bias in the award process. In 1931, chemists were bombarding heavy elements with neutrons, yielding elements that were seemingly heavier than uranium. Such “transuranic” elements were thought to be impossible at the time so they were viewed with suspicion. Hahn and Strassman found those transuranic elements were behaving a great deal like the much lighter barium, which would have implied that the heavy elements were being blown apart by the neutrons. Nuclear fission might seem obvious now, but at the time, the idea that a neutron could blow apart a nucleus was like suggesting the impact of a marble could crumble a building. It was Meitner's insight that the nucleus was like a biological cell splitting apart ("fission" being a biological word) which ultimately led to understanding just how atoms can be split. Hahn and Strassman won the prize for work based on this insight but Meitner was overlooked. Friedman’s detailed description of the injustice done to Meitner is illustrative of what females have had to suffer for some time and no doubt, still do.

I suppose it is bad form to quote the end of a book, but this one is so enjoyable that I hope it will motivate you to read it. Friedman spends some time in the final chapter reflecting on the idea that things don't have to be this way. We don't need one hyper-competitive certificate of genius in the world that tells scientists what to explore. How unscientific it is of Science The Institution to credit just a few people when so many discoveries are clearly built by the intellectual contributions of large groups of scientists with specialized skills. The ugly process behind the Nobel Prize and its excessive valuation is so clear that Friedman ends the book with a verbal description of this classic Calvin and Hobbes cartoon by Bill Watterson:




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