Nobels looking more like a wrong idea

City talk | Marlowe Hood 7 Oct 2020

With the 2020 Nobel prizes this week comes a recurrent question: has the most prestigious awards for physics, chemistry and medicine lost touch with the way science is conducted?

A century ago, discoveries took place mostly in the mind of an individual. But recently, big breakthroughs in the sciences are generally collaborations involving dozens or hundreds of researchers.

Two teams totaling 1,500 scientists, for example, were behind the detection this year of a so-called intermediate-mass black hole.

Major advances in science have also become reliant on technology, which is sometimes used to detect phenomena theorized to exist before today's scientists were even born.

"The Nobel Committee's refusal to make an award to more than three people has led to manifest injustices," says Martin Rees, Britain's astronomer royal since 1995.

Others lament the failure to recognize American virologist Robert Gallo for his contribution to the discovery of HIV, Rosalind Franklin for her pioneering work on DNA, and Italian physicist Adalberto Giazotto for his role in detecting gravitational waves.

"It has also given a misleading impression of how 'big science' actually advances," adds Rees, noting the prize has excluded "large tracts of science" such as mathematics and environmental science.

Even the most ardent defenders of the Nobel acknowledge that science has shifted dramatically since the era of Einstein.

"There has been an enormous change since the early 1900s," says Erling Norrby, a Swedish virologist who helped confer and cast votes for the Nobels for decades. "In modern science you often have very large groups of people interacting."

To some extent, the Karolinska Institute, which grants the Nobel in medicine, and the Royal Swedish Academy of Science, which does the same for physics and chemistry, have shifted with the times.

From 1920 to 1930, 23 of 30 awards were given to an individual scientist, and in the decade after World War II solo winners numbered 19. In the first 20 years of this century that has only happened on four occasions, with three-way awards given out 41 times.

In medicine, the number of possible recipients was expanded to three in 1934. The first three-way prizes for chemistry and physics were in 1946 and 1956 respectively.

But the rules have not evolved further.

Norrby concedes that Europe's CERN - which runs the largest particle physics laboratory and conducted experiments to detect the Higgs boson - would probably have shared that Nobel if allowed.

More recent science awards have done a better job in highlighting large collaborations, Rees says.

"The Breakthrough and Gruber prizes - which honored the discovery of gravitational waves before the Nobel Committee did - took a fairer approach in highlighting the leaders but explicitly recognizing the whole team," he notes.

Stavros Katsanevas, director of the European Gravitational Observatory, whose Virgo gravitational wave antenna played a key role in the science behind the 2017 physics prize, is of two minds about the Nobels.

"It's difficult to identify key contributors in such global networks," he says. "But if you just give the prize to an experiment and the person leading it at the [time] you dilute the impact."

For Katsanevas, 21st-century science stems not just from pure intellect but from having the vision, courage and organizational skills to pursue a goal or carve out a discipline.

"When you try to do something new you are considered a deserter by one camp and an intruder by the other," he says, noting that he has spent his career astride particle physics and astrophysics. "The fact someone dared to take a step that others didn't - this still needs to be recognized."


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