Last week it was the “Nobels’ week”. As every first week in October since 123 years, three to nine startled scientists pick up the phone and listen to a voice announcing they have been awarded a Nobel prize in chemistry, physics, or physiology and medicine. But in a modern era of multidisciplinary, multi-team challenges and endeavors, is the Nobel prize still a meaningful goal? Science these days operates very differently than it did more than 100 years ago. The days of gentleman scientists are over, and collaborations among groups of researchers using huge instruments built by dozens of engineers, have become the norm. The lines between the disciplines have become blurred to the extent that it is very difficult to pigeonhole some lines of research into the three traditional fields. This year for example, we had a physics prize that looks more like a kind of complicated engineering feat; a chemistry prize that looks very much like physics of materials; and a medicine&physiology prize that looks something between molecular biology, materials science, and high-tech tools.
To the least, Nobel prizes continue (and will continue) to play an important role in science and society by providing a key moment for the media to discuss basic science. Most of the time, science stories do not have the urgency of breaking news because usually they are not breaking news; but a Nobel prize gives the public a guaranteed-attractive science story once a year. A Nobel scientist instantly receives a star status worldwide, a long-lasting mark of “ultimate success”, with little room for reflection, broader scrutiny or objective examination. The scientists’ achievements are often arcane, and the debate about their worthiness remains confined to the specialists, only rarely surfacing in the public debate. Several times the awards have been criticized as mistakes, sometimes as downright unfair choices. But in the end, any award could be unfair in some sense or another. In the eyes of the public, a Nobel prize winner may be a role model for young scientists and attract kids to science. The Nobelized scientist is often put on a pedestal as a hero/heroine by the lay people, but the award should at least be cleared of the aura of personal superiority that it often entails: a Nobelist in physics or chemistry is not necessarily the best physicist or chemist in the World, and even less the “best scientist in the World”. There are plentiful examples of Nobelists who end their career by embarrassing themselves and amusing the public, as they throw around weird opinions about scientific fields of which they know next to nothing.
Alfred Nobel was a Swedish entrepreneur and businessman who made his fortune with more than 350 patents, and such useful inventions (absit iniuria verbis) as the dynamite. The legend goes that when his brother Ludvig died in Cannes in 1888, a French newspaper published by mistake an obituary, believing the departed was actually Alfred, accompanied by the title “The merchant of death is dead.” He was so much shocked (the younger brother Emil had already died from a nitroglycerine explosion in 1864) that decided his money should have been used to try to make the best for the humanity. (To be fair, it should be also said that in Alfred’s times, dynamite was mostly used in mining and construction, it started being used as a weapon only around the end of the 1890s. Also, Alfred was -in some twisted way- a pacifist, using for his invention the same logic that were to be used for atomic weapons during the Cold War: “When two armies could mutually annihilate each other in a second, all civilised nations will recoil with horror and disband their troops.” he said of dynamite weapons, but the history however says something different.) So, Alfred wrote his will, which was read at his (true) death in 1896. To the dismal of his relatives (he had no direct descendants), the bulk of his fortune was to be devoted to prizes in five areas that were of personal interest to him: physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace. The executors of his will were two young engineers, Ragnar Sohlman and Rudolf Lilljequist, who established the Nobel Foundation. The foundation was to take care of the financial assets (31,5 million Swedish kroner of the time, which would be about 175 million USD of today) and coordinate the work of the institutions charged with awarding the prizes, that is the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and the Karolinska Institute for the science prizes.
Alfred’s last will was bitterly contested by Nobel’s relatives, and questioned by authorities in various countries, but his decisions have remained unaltered since 1901, when the prizes were first awarded. It is however interesting to read how the money of the prize should be distributed, according to his express decision: “Prizes […] to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind. […] One part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery or invention within the field of physics; one part to the person who shall have made the most important chemical discovery or improvement; one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine.” The Nobel committees take the words of the will very literally. Thus, the Nobel prize is never a recognition of a lifetime achievement, but the award for a single, even isolated discovery. The Nobel Committee’s refusal to make an award to more than three individuals has sometimes led to manifest injustices, and given a misleading impression that science only advances by the strike of a bold genius mind, rather than through the cooperation of a large group. But Isaac Newton himself was the one to recognize that his work had been made possible ‘by standing on the shoulders of giants’. Fact is, the Nobel prize is generally tied to one clearly identifiable discovery, maybe not just one paper, yet not more than a small number of papers that opened up a new field or had huge consequences. Plus, the subtle differences nominally highlighted between the three “scientific” disciplines (I will not discuss here literature and peace, although we definitely need lots of both).
Being at his purpose the gift of a capitalist to the mankind, the Nobel prize original intent was to crown eminently practical discoveries that could bring a practical benefit to the society. This is the reason why Alfred identified the three disciplines, physics, chemistry and medicine, that in the mind of a XIX century industrialist were the ones with a most immediate chance of producing key useful advances. Not mathematics, since computers and AI were not around at that time, and no serious capitalist of those times could have put his money in the hands of a mathematician. Despite the great developments of engineering in the XIX century, the industrial revolution was mostly a matter of fabricants, largely empirical instrument makers and bold inventors, and the world of savants had only a minor part in it. In the new age of industry, science was still perceived as a case of curiosities, and attracted interest only when it turned into a practical application, such as Watt’s steam engine or the chemistry of aniline. The Ecole Polytechnique had been founded in Paris, 1794, to put science in the service of the society, and the number of technical schools grew quickly in Europe and America. Physics then was the science and technology of managing heat and electricity, not the search for the infinitely small or the infinitely vast that we know today, and this is why mr. Nobel included it in the list.
According to the will, the Nobel prize in physics can crown a discovery, or an invention. For its first 15 years, indeed, awards went to mostly applied research achievements, such as radio telegraphy, crystallography, radioactivity, low temperature technology, color photography, lighthouse valves. The first “theoretical” prize appeared only in 1918, with Max Planck’s energy quantum. However, things have much changed since then. Because of the ever larger and complex instruments that physicists invent to give experimental reality to their theories, research teams are bigger and bigger, and individual recognition is more and more blurred. The days of Albert Einstein, lonely chasing the general relativity equations in the silence of his dusty room, are long gone, and today’s physics discoveries could hardly be traced to a single individual’s brilliant mind. Inventions are still considered, though, such as the CCD in 2009, blue LEDs in 2014, laser technologies in 2018. The Nobel in physics may still crown the outstanding contribution of a few key leaders. For example, the 2017 prize recognized the genuine mega-discovery of gravitational waves, a virtuoso technical triumph and a vindication of Einstein’s theory. The key papers reporting these results are co-signed by up 1000 authors, but just three people were rewarded with the prize; however, this decision attracted very little discussion, because there was a community consensus that the chosen three, Barry Barish, Kip Thorne and Ray Weiss, really stood out of the crowd for their pre-eminent sustained leadership, and display of exceptional talent and distinction.
By contrast, look at the 2011 prize for the discovery that the expansion of our universe is not slowing down but is instead accelerating, with vast implications about Einstein’s theory (again!), the cosmological constant, the “dark energy” etc. The discovery was made independently by two teams, each with around 25 members, but the Nobel went to three people, two from one team (Riess and Schmitt) and one from the other (Perlmutter). In this case, it was noticed that several other scientists in each team had track records fully as distinguished, as those of the awardees. And even when a discovery is not explicitly a coordinated team effort, several people may have separately worked the same topic and reached the finishing‐line almost simultaneously. For the Higgs boson quest (a subject to which I dedicated already three sequential letters), six people are generally cited as having played key roles in predicting its existence. But the one with likely the most sustained lifetime achievement, Tom Kibble, did not receive a share of the Nobel, nor did any of the thousands at the CERN who conducted the vast experiment that actually made the discovery.
For the chemistry award, the presence of the word “improvement” means that the prize should be more open to methods development in chemistry than it is in medicine, physiology, or physics. This nuance came into play, for example, for the 2002 Nobel Prize in Chemistry that went to Fenn, Tanaka, and Wüthrich for developing (rather than “discovering”) analytical methods in mass spectroscopy and nuclear magnetic resonance; or the 2013 prize to Karplus, Leavitt and Warshel, “for the development of multiscale models for complex chemical systems” (neither of them invented molecular simulations on the computer, which were introduced many years before). On the other hand, chemistry as a field is so far reaching that it is difficult to set precise disciplinary limits, according to the classical XIX century separation of sciences: think of the 2006 prize to Roger Kornberg for the discovery of the molecular bases of eukaryotic transcription, mostly performed by using electron microscopy, x-ray diffraction, protein purification from cells extracts, and inventing new crystallization methods… do you see much “chemistry” here? Or the 1967 chemistry prize to Manfred Eigen and the 1968 prize to Lars Onsager, both of which were essentially hardcore mathematics’ Nobels. However, the Nobel in chemistry has been traditionally open to other sister disciplines: Ernest Rutherford and his alpha particles were crowned in chemistry, as well as the Joliot-Curies for irradiating elements with protons, Peter Debye for electron diffraction and dipole moments, Otto Hahn for the nuclear fission, Aaron Klug (a “mathematical physicist” according to the Royal Society) for transmission electron microscopy. Biology had pacifically invaded the territories of chemistry already since 1927-28, with bile acids, sterols and vitamins. In 1937 and 38 Karrer and Kuhn were prized two years in a row, both for studying carotenoids and vitamins (the Committee having second thoughts…). And in this new century, about half of the chemistry awards already went to biochemistry. Personally, although I am sentimentally drawn to 1998’s DFT prize to Walter Kohn (not Pople, since I hate Gaussian!), I consider the 1978 chemistry prize to Peter Mitchell, for his visionary chemiosmotic theory of ATP regeneration in mitochondria, as the most important recognition of the past 50 years.
In medicine and physiology the situation is complicated by the even more multidisciplinary nature of health and life sciences. The original “medicine” label has been diluted over time, while at the same time the medical world has been contaminated by biochemistry, structural biology, genomics and so on. Moreover, the “physiology” label seems now outdated, with its focus on a very specific subdomain of health sciences, and it rather evokes a dr. Frankestein sparkling electricity from lightning in his turreted caste. In facts, while nearly 80% of the prizes in the first 30 Nobel years were awarded to clinicians, in the last 30 years this figure reduced to only 25%. In recent times, only the 2005 and 2015 prizes could be considered as purely ‘medical science’ awards, while the majority of prizes have been awarded for elucidating fundamental biological mechanisms. Now, while breakthroughs in basic biological mechanisms clearly constitute a significant component of medical discovery, it is widely acknowledged that only 1% of fundamental discoveries barely translate into widespread clinical applications (see Am. J. Med. 2003). Clearly, the Nobel in medicine has become increasingly focused on basic research themes, with comparatively little consideration of their subsequent impact. However, it is likely just in this field that Alfred Nobel’s dedication to the “greatest benefit of mankind” should have the most obvious impact. While it is unquestionable that molecular-scale discoveries, such as the structure of DNA or the functioning of the ribosome, entirely fulfill these criteria, other examples of greatest benefit could easily have included, e.g., the global eradication of smallpox, or the global screening and treatment for phenylketonuria. Both examples include healthcare circumstances in which clinicians had a central role in saving millions of lives, without any Nobel recognition. And yet there are ’halfway’ examples, such as the 2008 prize to Sinoussi and Montagnier for the discovery of the HIV virus: 15 years past the prize, and more than 30 years after the discovery, there is still no vaccine against HIV and no established clinical treatment for AIDS.
What’s beyond Nobel, then, to encourage discovery and innovation by the World’s scientific community? Well, we see a growth of “challenge prizes” to push earnest efforts to tackle important problems. Challenge prizes are not new, starting with the “Longitude Prize” set by the English Crown in 1714 for “inventing a practical and useful method to determine longitude to an accuracy of half a degree”. The Longitude prize was revived in 2014, by opening the challenge in six fields, from zero-carbon flight, to antibiotics, to sustainable water desalination: “antibiotics” was the winner, and a number of seed research awards have been already granted to several groups in the field. Challenge prizes can also have a more visionary rather than practical intent. In an 1891 paper published in the journal L’Astronomie, Camille Flammarion announced that “M.me Clara Goguet Guzman, from Pau, offered a prize of 100,000 francs, bequeathed to the Institute of France, for the person of whatever nation who will find the means within the next ten years of communicating with a star, planet or otherwise, and of receiving a response. If the Institute of France does not accept the legacy, it will pass to the Institute of Milan, and in the case of a new refusal, to that of New York.” Nikola Tesla would later try to claim it, in 1937, but as of today nobody has won it yet. These days one may knock at the doors of the likes of Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, or apply for the X-Prizes by entrepreneur P. Diamandis and his Californian foundation: their most recent challenge put 100 million dollars on “inventing methods for carbon removal, fighting climate change and rebalancing Earth’s carbon cycle”. Nothing less. Faites votre jeu…