Nobel dreams

I’m glad to be in a field without a Nobel Prize.

I’ve met many Nobelists, always with great respect and admiration. Many are great thinkers, intellectually curious across a broad range of fields, including (in conversations with me) human evolution. It’s always a great thrill to talk to someone outside of anthropology who can follow the logic of evolutionary theory – as many physicists and a few “physiology and medicine” awardees can.

But I don’t envy the rat race of aging scientists hoping their youthful accomplishments will at long last meet the committee’s approval. Robin McKee has a nice piece in the Observer discussing various disgruntlements with the Nobel Prizes. He organizes the essay around the case of Fred Hoyle, whose collaborators were given a Nobel for work to which Hoyle was central.

McKee describes Hoyle’s several flirtations with pseudoscience, which damaged his reputation among many scientists.

But were they grounds for refusing Hoyle a Nobel prize? Understanding the origin of the elements was a major intellectual breakthrough. Who cares if he was a bit fruity about flu and fossils? And surely by awarding one scientist a Nobel prize for a piece of work while refusing to give it to the senior partner in the effort, the Swedish academy was being deliberately provocative? Was this a warning to scientists about the dangers of speaking out of turn?
In the background, there is a growing feeling among senior scientists that the Nobels, which are now in their 110th year, need to change fundamentally. For example, in an era in which so much scientific research is generated by vast collaborative teams, is it right to limit each annual award to its current maximum of three? Already a row is brewing over who should be honoured with a Nobel if physicists finally discover the elusive Higgs boson, one of the main targets of the Large Hadron Collider at Cern near Geneva.

It’s a prize. It’s not the judgment of history. Sure, it matters – like the Academy Awards matter to actors – sure, the members are part of an “elite club”. But it’s not the only club. There are others that matter to the real world a lot more.

There are plenty of Nobelists who’ve gone on to do more great work, and there are likewise plenty who’ve gone on to public shame of various kinds. If the CERNers are really worried about it at this point (which I doubt), clearly the way to improve your odds is to make an outlandish prediction, and be right. Of course, many would hate to risk being wrong.

We should have prizes for Audacity. Like in the Tour de France – the “most aggressive rider” award.