The Nobel Prize is likely the most recognized and important prize in science. It is however controversial, distorts the public's perception of science and excludes many of the scientists who contributed to the discoveries. Can it be adapted to the 21st century?
The Nobel Prize award ceremony held recently, is, for the scientific community, the equivalent of Hollywood’s Academy Awards, the Oscars. A few months ago, in October, the Nobel Committees announced the Nobel laureates for this year. Prior to the announcement, many scientists and people outside of academia were eagerly waiting to hear which researcher will receive a surprise phone call and discover they will be receiving a prize for their research in the fields of physiology or medicine, chemistry and physics. In the following days, the non-scientific Nobel Prizes for Literature and for Peace were also announced.
The happy laureates usually receive a substantial monetary award, world glory and a gold medal. However, many times it so happens that the fame of the few laureates (since each prize can be shared by three people at most) overshadows the contribution of many other researchers who paved the way to the Nobel Prize-awarded achievements. This problem has accompanied the prize since its earliest days. Perhaps unsurprisingly so, for a prize that has sparked controversy from its very onset and may have been created as one man’s attempt to improve his public relations.
Upon His Death He Willed Us the Prizes
On Wednesday, November 27 1895, at the Swedish-Norwegian Club in Paris, the 62-year-old Alfred Bernhard Nobel signed his third and last will. He was one of the richest people in all of Europe, a chemist, an entrepreneurial engineer and an inventor, who made his fortune by developing dynamite, as well as other types of explosives. Legend has it that a few years before he edited his will, Alfred Nobel had a short glimpse of the day of his own death. In 1888, the death of his brother Ludvig Nobel led a number of newspapers to mistakenly report Alfred’s death and publish their obituaries of him, instead of his brother. One of these, a French newspaper called L'Idiotie Quotidienne, published the false report, entitling it “Le marchand de la mort est mort“ (“The merchant of death is dead” ). According to the legend, Nobel read the report and being appalled by the idea that he would be remembered as the “merchant of death” decided to bequeath the majority of his fortune to a fund that would carry his name and establish a prize, to be awarded to people who have made the greatest contributions to the benefit of humankind.
Although this is a beautiful story, it appears that this French newspaper never existed. Indeed, there were newspapers that mistakenly reported Alfred Nobel’s death, such as Le Figaro, that published a brief obituary, stating that “A man who can hardly be passed off as a benefactor of humanity died yesterday in Cannes. It’s Mr. Nobel, inventor of dynamite. He was Swedish". A headline that does not include an appalling title, and it is impossible to know whether or not Alfred Nobel has even read it. The legend also does not appear on the Nobel Prize website, which states that Nobel was inspired to establish the prize, at least partially, following the fact that in 1868, the year following Nobel’s first patent for dynamite, he and his father were awarded the Letterstedt Prize by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for “important discoveries of practical value to humanity”. In addition, it appears that his former sweetheart and good friend, baroness Bertha von Suttner, a novelist and a pacifist, played a role in his inspiration. In 1905, von Suttner herself won the Nobel Peace Prize. Regardless of Nobel’s true inspiration, it appears that he decided to ensure that in the future, his name would not be associated with explosives, but rather with science and progress.
Whatever his inspiration, Nobel decided to ensure that his name would not be associated with explosives, but rather with science and progress. Alfred Nobel | Science Photo Library
Nobel died in his house in San Remo, Italy on December 10 1896, His family members read the will and discovered that the man who had once written of himself: “I am a misanthrope and yet utterly benevolent, have more than one screw loose yet am a super-idealist who digests philosophy more efficiently than food”, was indeed at least a few of these things. Nobel, who had no children of his own, left small sums of money to his nephews and nieces, his servants and a few more people including his former love Sofija Hess, a Jew who had converted to Christianity and from whom Nobel did not conceal his anti-semitic views. Everything left of his estate, 31 million Swedish kronor, which constituted 94 percent of his entire fortune, was bequeathed to a fund to be opened in his name. Today, this amount would be equivalent to about 1.7 billion Swedish kronor, which is equivalent to about 187 million American dollars. According to the will, “the interest [on the fund] is to be distributed annually as prizes to those who, during the preceding year, have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind”.
In his will, Nobel requested that the interest be divided into five equal parts, to be distributed as awards in the fields of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and for the promotion of peace, each one to one person, who will be chosen regardless of his nationality. He also delineated who would carry out his will and which organizations would be in charge of choosing the laureates and bestowing the prizes.
The new will angered many people, and was considered by many members of the Nobel family to be quite a nasty move by him. Family members who naturally felt disinherited from the will, waged a lengthy legal battle against it; the executors of the will heard about their appointments only after the will was opened; the institutions that Nobel had selected to be the ones to choose the laureates and confer the awards had first heard about the matter only after his death; and a tumult in the media began over the issue that the future prizes would also be distributed to non-Swedes. It was not until these conflicts and financial matters had been satisfactorily resolved, that the first prize-awarding bodies could get to work. Due to all of these issues, the first Nobel Prize was given out only on the fifth anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death, on December 10th 1901, 120 years ago.
Without The Shoulders of Giants?
From the moment the first Nobel Prizes were awarded, criticism and complaints about them began to surge. Among the laureates in the first year of the prize was Emil von Behring, who received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering an antitoxin for diphtheria. The discovery was made ten years earlier, in a scientific collaboration with the Japanese physician and bacteriologist Baron Kitasato Shibasaburō. Kitasato was even considered as one of the nominees for the prize, but it was eventually given only to von Behring. Officially, Kitasato could not receive the award, since Nobel had stated that only one person could be the laureate. In that same year, however, two people shared the Nobel Peace Prize, and a year later, in 1902, two Dutch Nobel laureates, Pieter Zeeman and Hendrik Antoon Lorentz, were chosen in the field of physics. In addition, Nobel had stated that the prize be awarded to research carried out during the previous year, a limitation that the prize committee jas since ignored, and justifiably so, as it is rarely possible to affirm the validity of a scientific discovery, or the extent to which it is “beneficial to humanity”, within such a short while. The common assumption is that Kitasato did not receive the Nobel Prize due to racism or nationalism, as, after all, he was a Japanese foreigner.
A stamp noting the contribution of von Behring to the discovery of an antitoxin for diphtheria, which, in contrast to the Nobel Prize committee, did not forget Kitasato | 1991, Transkei, LF Haas, J. Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry 2001;71:62
Many more examples of researchers who were marginalized and did not share the prize, in spite of having made an important contribution to the research for which it was given, have accumulated over the years. In their 2013 article, entitled “Is The Nobel Prize Good for Science?”, biologists Arturo Casadevall and Ferric Fang, write about the 1952 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, which was awarded to Selman Abraham Waksman for the discovery of the antibiotic streptomycin, even though it was actually Albert Schatz, Waksman’s graduate student, who discovered the antibiotic while working alone in a basement laboratory. A more recent controversial example is that of Raymond Damadian, an American physician, creationist and inventor of the first magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine. The Nobel committee decided to award the 2003 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to Paul Lauterbur and Peter Mansfield for their role in developing magnetic resonance imaging. MRI scanners today are based more on their developments rather than on those of Damadian, which were made separately. Although the committee had the option of awarding the prize to a third person, they decided not to do so. Damadian who was the first to present the idea of magnetic resonance imaging and was the first to publish an article in Science on tumor identification using the technology, felt aggrieved, and protested by placing full-page advertisements in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, detailing the objection.
In 2017, the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to three scientists, the maximal number of laureates possible. The three, Rainer Weiss, Barry Barish and Kip Thorne, from the LIGO/VIRGO observatory team, received the prize for their contribution to the discovery of gravitational waves. However, the three, who founded the executive committee of LIGO, form part of a team of hundreds of researchers: the article describing the discovery of the gravitational waves was authored by more than a thousand people from twenty different countries.
”Of course, LIGO's success was owed to literally hundreds of dedicated scientists and engineers”, said Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, in an interview for the BBC.“The fact that the Nobel committee refuses to make group awards is causing them increasingly frequent problems - and giving a misleading and unfair impression of how a lot of science is actually done”. Casadevall and Fang expressed a similar opinion, having written in their article that the Nobel Prize is the essence of the “winner-takes-all” attitude, distorting the history of science by focusing on the contribution of single individuals to discoveries that were made thanks to the work of many and of groups. In the vast majority of cases, science is about teamwork. Scientists, as Newton put it, “stand on the shoulders of giants” and always rely on the work of their predecessors. Yet, their work also consists of the contribution of collaborators and other contemporary scientists working in the same field, even if the Nobel committees refuse to recognize it.
The committees cannot claim that they award prizes to three people at most due to adherence to rules delineated in Alfred Nobel’s will. Nobel had stated in his will that each field should have only one laureate and that the prize is to be awarded for a contribution made during the previous year - two rules that the committees soon ignored. The Nobel Peace Prize Committee has at times chosen to award the prize to groups and organizations, such as the Permanent International Peace Bureau in Switzerland or the International Committee of the Red Cross, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize three times over the 20th century. If so, there should be no reason why the scientific Nobel Prizes should not be awarded to groups.
The Nobel Prize in the field of medicine was awarded to Paul Lauterbur (left) and Peter Mansfield. And who was left out? Raymond Damadian | Nobel Prize website
Cherchez La Femme (Look For The Woman)
The most marginalized group of people, who many times were not awarded a Nobel Prize, in spite of deserving of one, are female scientists. Out of the 626 researchers who received a Nobel Prize in the sciences over the years of the Prize’s existence, only 22 were women, including the Israeli researcher Ada Yonath who shared the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for resolving the structure of the ribosome, the “protein factory” of the cell. Another female researcher who specialized in resolving molecular structures was the British scientist Rosalind Franklin, whose work made a significant contribution to the resolution of the structure of DNA. Her colleague, Maurice Wilkins, shared an image she had produced with James Watson and Francis Crick, without her knowing, which allowed them to determine the structure of DNA in 1953 and publish the seminal paper describing the double-helical shape of the molecule. Watson, Crick and Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962, four years after Franklin died of ovarian cancer at the age of 37. Since 1974, the Nobel Prize has been awarded only to people who were alive at the time of the prize announcement, but even before this, it was very uncommon to award the prize posthumously. However, since the prize cannot be divided between more than three people, it is likely that even had she been alive, the prize committee would have awarded it to the three men anyway.
Living female scientists were also marginalized by their male colleagues and opponents. Vera Rubin, an astronomer who during the 1960’s and 1970’s had discovered evidence for the existence of dark matter, based on deviations in the movements of galaxies, has been mentioned many times as a nominee for the Nobel Prize in Physics. “The existence of dark matter has utterly revolutionized our concept of the universe and our entire field; the ongoing effort to understand the role of dark matter has basically spawned entire subfields within astrophysics and particle physics at this point”, said Emily Levesque, an astrophysicist from the University of Washington in an interview with Astronomy. “Alfred Nobel’s will describes the physics prize as recognizing ‘the most important discovery’ within the field of physics. If dark matter doesn’t fit that description, I don’t know what does.”
However, even after awarding the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics to three men who discovered dark energy during observations which were carried out twenty years after Rubin’s observations, the Nobel Committee continued to ignore Rubin’s achievements. She passed away on December 25th 2016 at the age of 88, and so the chance that the Nobel Committee may come to its senses and award her the prize was lost forever.
The Austrian-Swedish female physicist Lise Meitner rightfully deserved a Nobel Prize but, in spite of having been nominated for it 48 times, never received it. She discovered nuclear fission, together with her nephew Otto Frisch and her long-time collaborator, the German chemist Otto Hahn. In 1945, Hahn was retroactively awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for 1944, which was not awarded in 1944 due to World War II. In spite of being slighted by the prize committee, Meitner accompanied Hahn to the award ceremony, but was disappointed by the fact that he did not mention her or Frisch’s contribution in his Nobel speech. In a letter to a friend, Meitner wrote “Of course Hahn deserved to receive the Prize, there is no doubt about it. But I believe Frisch and I made a not insignificant contribution to clarify the process of fission of uranium – how it is created and that it produces so much energy, that is something Hahn was far from [understanding]”.
Brushed aside by their colleagues and male counterparts. Rosalind Franklin (left) and Lise Meitner | MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Smithsonian Institution
Jocelyn Bell-Burnell also had problematic research collaborators. While a postgraduate student, she discovered the first radio pulsars - neutron stars that emit electromagnetic radiation out of their magnetic poles. However, when the Nobel Prize in Physics for this discovery was awarded in 1974, she was not one of the prize’s recipients. The prize was awarded to her doctoral advisor, Antony Hewish, and to the head of the department, the renowned astrophysicist Martin Ryle. Fred Hoyle, a physicist, protested the fact that she was deprived of the prize, and accused her advisor of taking credit for her work. Bell wasn’t too disturbed by the issue and told The Guardian she felt she had “done very well out of not getting a Nobel prize” because she had won another award almost every year since, which is “much more fun”.
The Power of a Story
A large part of the controversy around the Nobel Prize, including discrimination of worthy candidates and the marginlization of the contributions of other, especially female, researchers, stems from the limitation on the possible number of prize laureates. This limitation by itself creates the beautiful and easily and temptingly believable story, that scientific discoveries are made by single geniuses, who often also happen to be Western men. It seems that this story is also beneficial for the prize laureates. Casadevall and Fang note that the scientific articles of Nobel laureates receive more citations, and that Nobel Laureate status is associated with a year or two of extra longevity for the Laureates, compared to nominees who did not receive the prize. The prize also has advantages beyond the personal benefits: the aura and fame around Nobel Prize recipients allows them to increase public interest in science and also helps the institutions from which they came to raise money to fund further research, at least for the prizes in the fields of physics, chemistry, and physiology or medicine.
The pleasure in the discovery, and the realization that others make use of it, are the true reward. Nobel laureate Richard Feynman | CERN, Science Photo Library
Unfortunately, the impression generated by the awarding of the Nobel prize also has a downside. It causes people to overestimate laureates’ opinions even when these are expressed out of their specialty field, such as controversial statements expressed by James Watson on issues spanning race, gender, religion and sexuality, or the denial of the connection between HIV and AIDS by Kary Mullis. Mullis, inventor of the PCR and the 1993 Nobel laureate in Chemistry, has also denied climate change and claimed to have spoken with a glowing space raccoon.
However, the main damage caused by the Nobel Prize is due to the preservation and spread of the lone genius story, turning the Nobel laureates into unique heros. In reality, and especially so in the 21st century, scientific discoveries are frequently the results of a culmination of a group effort by people coming from many fields. In order to reflect this reality, the prize initiated by Alfred Nobel at the end of the 19th century, should update its outlines to the new era and abolish the limitation on the number of researchers who can win it, such that all who have made a significant contribution to the research can receive the recognition they deserve, as well as learn from the Nobel Peace Prize to allow research groups and special projects to win a Nobel Prize in the Sciences.
Such an update would diminish the inequality among prize recipients and contenders, and will help to present the public with interesting scientific discoveries without warping the perception on the way science is done. Until such a change occurs it is important to remember the words of the 1965 Nobel laureate in Physics, Richard Feynman: “I don't see that it makes any point that someone in the Swedish Academy decides that the work is noble enough to receive a prize. I’ve already got the prize. The prize is the pleasure of finding the thing out, the kick in the discovery, the observation that other people use it. Those are the real things.”