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Thursday, March 04, 2010

And the winner is...

I thought I'd write about Nobel Prizes and rewards in science. Long ago I had an illuminating discussion about the subject with someone in publishing, I believe it was the night we were ineptly making Tequila Sunrises and drinking the mistakes so some of the recollections are a bit hazy. The core of the argument was around prestige and cash, my position was that the scientific prestige of the Nobel Prize could not be matched with any cash reward and that it was the Nobel Prize that I'd go for, over the cash, any time. My publishing friend had serious trouble understanding this position.

Despite this I'm ambivalent about the Nobel Prizes, it's a nice annual event that brings science a little up the news agenda and its always interesting to spot the Nobel Prize winners in your department (to be honest this isn't much of a game for most people, whilst I was at the Department of Physics in Cambridge there were two Nobel Prize winners in physics still attending: Brian Josephson and Neville Mott). Reading down the list of Nobel laureates in Physics, about two thirds are household names for any physicist whilst the remaining third are only recognised in their own sub-fields. One per year globally is an awfully thin sprinkling for any meaningful recognition of talent.

There are anomalies: Rosalind Franklin potentially missed out on a share in the 1962 award for the Nobel Prize in Physiology for "... discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material", this is the award to Crick, Watson and Wilkins for the discovery of DNA. She had died at the age of 37, and Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously. Jocelyn Bell Burnell was not awarded for her part in the discovery of pulsars. In fact wikipedia has a whole page of Nobel Prize controversies. Any award of this type must ultimately be subjective, and given the further constrains of the prize rules, a degree of controversy is inevitable.

Perhaps more pernicious is the idea that discoveries are made by three people or fewer. Isaac Newton said "If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.": scientific discoveries make use of the discoveries that have come before, and these days discoveries may be made by the collaboration of very large groups of people.

I've never had the feeling, as a scientist, of flocking around an individual, rather more of flocking around an idea that has been developed by a number of individuals. You never find scientists in groups asking "What would Einstein do?". You rarely find scientists making references to "the school of X", where X is some famous scientist. There are no gurus in science.

Practically speaking I believe that my contribution to science in future years will be considered exceedingly minor; epsilon as numerical analysts would call it: the smallest thing you can have without being zero. For me the reward in science has always been the thrill of personal discovery, a sudden realisation that you have learnt just a little more about the way things work, something that no one else knows.  The desire that other people recognise that only comes later, and in the first instance the thrill is in showing the neat thing you have found (not your role in the discovery).

In truth I'd do science for no payment, and I think it's true to say most scientists would say the same. Before my employer gets excited by this revelation, I should point out that I charge for attendance at meetings and the amount of money you pay me to interact with various poorly designed IT systems is no where near enough! Similarly, as an academic, I required payment to write grant applications, attend examiners meetings and so forth.

And to end with my favourite Tom Lehrer Nobel Prize quote: "Political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize."


Nora Lumiere said...

Your post is in preparation for the Oscars on Sunday, we assume.
And, a propos, why not a red carpet parade of Nobel prize winners, with broadcasts of their speeches? "NOBEL IDOL", perhaps? I'd watch.
I know, I now, "no gurus in science"...

SomeBeans said...

I believe the Nobel Prize awards are rather ceremonial, Richard Feynmann spent some time worrying about how to progress backwards away from the the Swedish king!

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