October 9, 2019 | David F. Coppedge

Nobel Prizes Foment Ignoble Ends

It’s Nobel Prize time, and debates are stewing again about whether Alfred Nobel did a good thing by giving a few winners lots of money.

Science journals and news media love Nobel Prizes. It gives reporters instant fodder for their writing. They get to show pictures of the winners, tell their biographies, and explain why their winning subjects were significant. Few are the reporters stepping back and asking whether million-dollar prizes belong in science in the first place.

James Prescott Joule, 1818-1889

Whatever happened to science as a search for the truth because of the pure love of nature? James Joule tinkered with his own inventions in his father’s brewery because he wanted to understand how heat and work are related. Most scientists study for years to get a degree that many of them have to pay for. If they do that because they hope to win a Swedish lottery some day, they’re into science for the wrong reasons.

This is not to discount the prestige of this year’s winners, who undoubtedly worked hard and in some cases changed the world – like today’s winners of the Chemistry prize for two men who invented the lithium-ion battery. But every winner leaves behind scores of other scientists who worked just as hard and got nothing.

Now, with some in the media speculating that the Nobel committee may award the Peace Prize to the 16-year-old Swedish crybaby Greta Thunberg, instead of a man who has arguably done far more for the cause of peace in the world than her (like initiating talks with North Korea to dismantle their nuclear program, defeating ISIS, drastically cutting back on human trafficking, supporting religious freedom and seeking fair trade between nations), onlookers could rightly question the judgment of those on the Nobel committee (which had also awarded the Peace Prize to his predecessor before he had done anything in office, just because of the color of his skin). Who are these unaccountable decision makers to dispense millions of dollars from Alfred Nobel’s bequest from his invention of dynamite to a select few people, including a young misguided propaganda victim whose only accomplishment was to cry on camera about problems too complex for her to comprehend?

A few reporters understand the ignoble results of the prizes. Meghan Bartels at Live Science writes today about “Why the Science Community Is Upset About Who Won a Nobel — and Who Didn’t.” Her writing, though, smells of gender politics, complaining primarily about why so many white males have been winners. The statistics do show a bias. Only three women have ever received the prize, and those had to share it with male partners. But gender and race are not supposed to matter in science; what should matter are significant scientific findings, no matter who discovers them. Why is that issue even being considered?

Caltech c. 1950

Nature today included a recounting of the discovery of DNA’s structure by Watson and Crick. The story illustrates the political shenanigans and competitions between teams eyeing a prize. As a result, Crick and his racist partner Watson are forever enshrined as Nobel Laureates, while Rosalind Franklin, Maurice Wilkins, Max Perutz, Linus Pauling and others, who were hot on their heels and might have found the structure independently in time, missed out. Is science like a horse race where one person, who isn’t running himself, can win by a nose and win the Belmont Stakes, while the real champion (the horse) gets hay and oats?

The Nobel Prizes also stink because only three winners are allowed per prize per year. These days, some discoveries are made by large teams of dozens or hundreds of scientists. This three-slot rule led to an unusual award this year in Physics, where Peebles got it for cosmology and two others got it for exoplanets. Will this lead to divvying up prizes to three-and-only-three people regardless of subject matter, instead of by teams who actually shared similar research? Peebles gets it for dark matter that has never been discovered, and for big bang theories that some argue are fraught with problems. And the categories set up at the beginning – Chemistry, Physics, and Physiology or Medicine – leave out numerous other scientific fields that have sprung up since Alfred Nobel died.

The whole concept of the Nobel Prize stinks to high academia. Let scientists pursue truth humbly, and be glad for discoveries made regardless of who got there first. Leave Academy Awards to Hollyweird.

Just be glad there’s no Nobel Prize for evolutionary biology. Wait — there is: the Darwin Awards.

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