The absurdity of the Nobel Prize in science

The essence of the scientific initiative is distorted, the history of science is being rewritten, and people who have made important contributions to it are forgotten.


On the morning of October 3, physicists Rainer Weiss , Kip Thorn and Barry Barish received the Nobel Prize in Physics for discovering gravitational waves - distortions of the fabric of space-time. This trio, which led the LIGO project (a laser-interferometric gravitational-wave observatory) that recorded these waves, will share the prize of 9 million Swedish crowns. Perhaps more importantly, until the end of their lives they will bear the title of Nobel Prize winner.

What about the other scientists who contributed to the LIGO project, whose names adorn the three-page list of authors in the article describing the discoveries? “LIGO owes its success to hundreds of researchers,” says astrophysicist Martin Rees. “The fact that the Nobel Committee refuses to give out group prizes, more and more often leads to problems and gives a wrong idea of ​​how science is done.”

Familiar refrain. Every year, when the Nobel Prize is awarded in physics, chemistry and physiology or medicine, critics point out the absurdity and anachronism of this award as a mechanism for recognizing the merits of scientists. Instead of giving praise to science, they distort its essence, rewrite history and forget about many people who have contributed to it.

Prizes have advantages. Scientific discoveries should be rewarded for their vital role in the development of mankind. The website of the Nobel Prize is a storehouse of education, it is full of interesting historical details, usually emanating from published works. And you should not be too cynical, describing any event that from year to year gives rise to anticipation, comparable to the expectation of Oscar or Emmy. But the fact that the awarding of the Nobel Prizes gave rise to disagreements from the very beginning points to deeply rooted problems.

Emil Adolf von Bering received the first medical award in 1901 for the discovery of antitoxins - and his partner Shibasaburo Kitasato was left without a prize. The 1952 prize for medicine and physiology was given to Selman Voxman for discovering the antibiotic streptomycin, and ignored by graduate student Albert Schatz, who actually discovered this compound. The prize in chemistry in 2008 was given to three researchers for the detection of green fluorescent protein (GFP), a molecule often used by other scientists to visualize intracellular processes. Douglas Prescher, the man who first cloned the gene for GFP [ and the DNA that had been procused - approx. trans. ], did not get it.

In some cases, people challenged what the Nobel committee ignored. In 2003, Raymond Damadian placed several advertisements all over the page in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, protesting against being deprived of the Nobel Prize in medicine for his role in the invention of magnetic resonance imaging. For this discovery, the committee awarded the prize to Paul Lauterbur and Peter Mansfield. This Damadian called "shameful mistake, requiring correction." “I can't wake up on Monday morning and find that I have been struck out of history — I cannot live with such agony,” he told the Times.

A broader problem, besides who should be given a prize, and who is not worth it, is that individual people are awarded with Nobel Prize - a maximum of three for each of the prizes per year. And modern science, as Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus wrote in the magazine Stat, "is the most commanding of team sports." Researchers sometimes make breakthroughs on their own - but this is extremely rare. Even in one research group, a detachment of graduate students, students and engineers will participate in the discovery, which is then assigned to one person. More often, several groups are working on one project. In an article in which the LIGO team announced the discovery, the list of authors stretched to three pages. In another recent article, in which an accurate estimate of the elusive Higgs boson was given, 5154 authors were mentioned.

Advocates of the award point out that the Nobel Committee is bound by the conditions laid down in the will of Alfred Nobel - in the document that established the prize. The will specifies the need to search for one, individual person who made an important discovery in his field “during the previous year”. The Nobel Committee recognizes the discovery of up to three people, made a few decades before. If the original rules violate this, why not go further? As the editors of Scientific American suggested in 2012, why not award teams and organizations with scientific prizes, as they do with the Peace Prize?

The cost of reform is low, and the cost of avoiding it is large. As biologists Arturo Casadeval and Ferik Fang wrote in 2013, the Nobel prizes advocate the idea of ​​lonely geniuses; philosopher Thomas Carlyle summed it up like this: "the history of the world is just a biography of great people." In science, this is not the case, and yet the Nobels feed this destructive myth. And this, according to Cadedeval and Fang, "reinforces the imperfect system of awards in science, in which the winner takes everything, and the contribution of many people is ignored because of the disproportionate attention to the contribution of individuals." In a sense, prizes are given not to those who have made the most important contributions, but to those who survived in the dangerous labyrinths of the academic world.

And in many cases, it's just prizes for those who survive. Posthumously, the Nobel will not give. So Rosalind Franklin was not awarded for her key role in the discovery of the double helix of DNA, because she died four years before the Nobel Prize was given to James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins. Astronomer Vera Rubin found evidence of the existence of dark matter, studying the rotation of galaxies, making a revolution in the understanding of the universe. "Vera Rubin deserves a Nobel Prize," wrote the author of scientific articles Rachel Feltman in October 2016. "But she probably will not have time to get it." Two months later, Vera Rubin died.

The cases of Rubin and Franklin point to another old problem of the Nobel Prize. In addition to promoting the myth of single geniuses, these geniuses almost always turn out to be white men. Women received 12 of 214 awards in physiology or medicine, 4 of 175 in chemistry, 2 of 204 in physics. The most recent woman physicist and laureate, Maria Goeppert-Meier, received an award 54 years ago. And it's not a lack of nominees. Rubin clearly deserved the award, as did Lisa Meitner, who discovered nuclear fusion with the winner Otto Khan. From 1937 to 1965, Meitner was nominated 48 times by different people, and never won an award. “The Nobel Prize has many remarkable properties, but it must be remembered that the demographics of the winners reflect and reinforce structural distortions,” astrophysicist Katie Mack last year tweeted.

Perhaps if the Nobel were not such a big event, all this would not matter. In addition to the monetary value of the prize, the laureates are guaranteed attention. Their work is often quoted. They live for a year or two more than people who have been nominated but have not received an award. The reward puts on them the seal of eternal greatness. The Nobel Prize is not a MacArthur grant for geniuses that is given to people "who have demonstrated an extremely creative approach to work." It concerns a specific discovery. At the same time, the person who made the discovery is advertised for life as an intellectual force in itself - which equals one historical contribution and its entire set of ideas at once.

Problems begin when laureates become champions in pseudoscience or bigotry, which happened to many. William Shockley , who won the transistor inventions in 1956, became an adherent of eugenics, arguing that people with low IQ, especially blacks, needed to be sterilized [ that Shockley actually claimed can be read in the Russian Wiki - approx. trans. ]. James Watson also claims that Africans are on average less intelligent. Carey Mullis, who won a chemistry prize in 1993 for creating PCR technology ( polymerase chain reaction ), which is now used to copy DNA in all biological laboratories in the world, promotes astrology, denies the human role in climate change and the link between HIV and AIDS. He wrote in his autobiography that he once saw a glowing raccoon who could be an alien from space.

Honestly, in contrast to the problem with the number of scientists who need to be given a prize, the Nobel committee is unable to solve the issue of the rally from the coils of its laureates. We need to do this - given our tendency to regard the Nobel Prize as the apotheosis of a scientific career. She is not. Like any other award, it has flaws and subjectivism. Embellishing it, we pump up the ego of the laureates and bring down those who have not received it. "We must debunk the halo of the Nobel Prize," wrote Matthew Francis last year. "By our consent, she controls our perception of science and how they are engaged in it, and it is high time to withdraw this consent."


All Articles