Every year around this time, when the Nobel prizes are awarded, debates start about who missed out, whether the ones who got them deserved them and so forth. This year, such debates started a month ahead, with columns by well known scientists in journals and newspapers. Professor Athene Donald of Cambridge asked in the 17 September 2012 issue of The Telegraph “how many scientists does it take to make a discovery?” and that the era of the lone genius, as epitomised by Albert Einstein, has long gone.
Well, while Alfred Nobel himself had stipulated that the prize be given to an outstanding discovery made during the year, prizes are today given for discoveries and inventions made much earlier, and their importance realised in time. Also, while it was generally given earlier for a single individual, the Foundation expanded it to three, and no more than three, to share the prize.
Debate is not restricted to the issue of single versus multiple alone. Several more issues concerning the prize have been raised, each worthy of consideration in itself. Not accounting for, or addressing these concerns, has made the journal Scientific American state in its editorial page of October 8, 2012 that, in many ways, the Nobel Prize is a charming anachronism. In other words, it has not kept up with the changed, and changing, landscape and practices of sciences and how it is done.
Some of the issues are: (1) is it for a lone genius, or even a threesome, or should a team not be awarded? (2) Is the stipulation for disciplines (physics, chemistry, medicine) relevant any longer? (3) Why are the rules different for different categories of prizes? (4) Do we have to stick to the “year of discovery” as Nobel wanted? (5) Do we add any more scientific disciplines for recognition? Some of these issues are interlinked.
Many had expected the Higgs Boson (and Peter Higgs) to be recognized by the Prize this year. It was not, and that highlights some of the above issues. The boson is named after Higgs who — along with R. Brout and F. Englert, and with G. S. Guralnik, C. R. Hagen and T. W. B. Kibble — proposed the mechanism that suggested the particle, as early as 1964. And it took a team of 6,000 people, working as the Atlas Collaboration and the CMS Collaboration, at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, to prove them right. Do we then give the six of them or the 6005 of them?
This is not just with the Boson experiment. Many other such grand ideas are done as teamwork. Today’s science has moved from that of a scientist ploughing the lone furrow, into a group, team or consortium of collaborators. The Human Genome project is an excellent example. But then, as a scientist commented on the Scientific American editorial, perhaps awarding organisations, not just individuals, might be an option to consider (which in turn raises its own debate), just as in the case of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Discipline categorisation is another issue that is being debated. During the last 12 years, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry has gone only in four years to ‘card-carrying’ chemists, the rest eight have gone to molecular biologists, structural biologists and biophysicists, and several chemists have wondered about this.
Then again, last year’s prize went to Dr. Schechtman for his discovery of quasicrystals, a topic that could have been just as well included in physics. But, the 2010 Prize for discovering and identifying an allotropic form of the chemical element, graphene, was in physics, not chemistry! This brings the other issue of merging of disciplines blurring of boundaries and the birth of new disciplines. The charm in graphene lies less in its chemistry but far more in its use as a material — and in the new fusion-discipline material science.
Then again, the Nobel people started to award in soft-science areas such as economics. This has made one ask whether there should not be Nobels in time-honoured areas such as biology (as distinct from chemistry) and mathematics.
Granted there are other agencies that award much coveted prizes such as the Fields and Abel Prizes in mathematics, Dan David prizes (which are three annual prizes of US$ 1 million each for achievements having an outstanding scientific, technological, cultural or social impact on our world), and the Lasker awards in medicine. Indeed, more often than not, a Lasker awardee ends up getting the Nobel as well; Drs. John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka who got the Nobel this year in medicine won the Lasker in 2009 (and Martin Evans won the Lasker in 2001, and the Nobel in 2007). But the esteem that the Nobel has earned over the last century still is its trump card, which is why there is much discussion about its various facets.