Is the Nobel prize good for science?

David Matthews asks if elevating individuals to near-deity status undermines modern science’s purpose of deposing authority figures such as priests and popes

July 5, 2019
Group of scientists
Source: Alamy/Patrick Kunkel/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

As I first walked into the conference hall hosting this year’s Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, an annual get-together of prizewinners and young scientists on a picturesque, cobble-paved Bavarian island, one eager fan was asking their scientific hero for an autograph.

This was not the only act of hero worship I saw at Lindau, this year hosting physicists. I witnessed several more autographs being signed. One excited young scientist asked me to take a picture of them with their idol.

At the conference, Nobel laureates wear special turquoise lanyards to mark them out from the junior researchers in grey ones. There’s also a special “Laureate Lounge”, off-limits to everyone else.

We treat Nobel prizewinners as a breed apart. Journalists (myself included) are much more likely to write a story about the utterances of a laureate than your run-of-the-mill academic, even on topics with no connection to the work for which they picked up their gong.

On one level, this is completely understandable: the discoveries these people have made (that the universe will keep on expanding for ever; that gravitational waves exist) are mind-boggling. And to be fair, you can’t begrudge the laureates a quiet lounge of their own when they put in so much time speaking to young scientists and journalists.

But the level of hierarchy on display at Lindau – a mirror of the wider deference prizewinners receive – has always struck me as a bit odd. The very point of modern science is that it did away with the authority of priests and popes and holy books as possessors of the truth, in favour of experimental evidence.

Prizewinners themselves see their elevation to scientific royalty as a bit odd, too, I discovered. “It’s correct that it tends to make a separate subcategory of scientists who are in some ways treated differently,” I was told by Joseph Taylor, given the award in 1993 for discovering a new type of pulsar. “Certainly many of us are relatively simple people,” he said with a laugh, “and do not especially enjoy, at least not on a long-term basis, being singled out.”

Winning a Nobel prize was 95 per cent luck, a simple case of “being in the right place at the right time, doing the right problem”, Michael Kosterlitz, a winner in 2016 for his work on new and strange phases of matter, told budding scientists in a talk about his career.

Indeed, no winners seemed to believe that they, and they alone, deserved their Nobel status. Rainer Weiss, honoured in 2017 for helping to detect gravitational waves, spoke about feeling like an “impostor”.

And Claude Cohen-Tannoudji, a 1997 laureate for his work on cooling atoms with lasers, observed: “Not everybody deserving of a prize gets it, because there are not enough prizes given.”

If a big part of winning is about luck, does the prize make any sense? Is it good for science to elevate some researchers over others?

Winners are normally careful about the causes they endorse with their illustrious names. Wolfgang Ketterle, a 2001 laureate for his work on atoms at very low temperatures, declines to sign even petitions on issues he is sympathetic towards – Palestinian rights, for example – if they have “nothing to do with me as a scientist”.

Still, a small minority of laureates do go a bit “crazy”, Cohen-Tannoudji told me, expounding “bizarre” ideas well outside their area of expertise – denying climate change, for example. “Because of the Nobel prize, you can say what you want,” he warned.

Unsurprisingly, none of the laureates I spoke to wants the prize scrapped to make science more egalitarian. In a world where scientific values are under threat, they see the winners and the Nobel brand itself as crucial cheerleaders for rationality. Laureates also gain unparalleled access to politicians, allowing them to make the case for research at the highest level.

“People in the street know about the Nobel prize,” said Dan Shechtman, who won in 2011 for discovering a type of crystal previously thought impossible. “And people think highly of people who receive the Nobel prize. That means they think highly of science, and that is important.”

Isn’t it possible to boost the reputation of science without focusing on specific individuals? Brian Schmidt, honoured in 2011 for discovering that the universe’s rate of expansion is increasing, thinks this approach might be fairer. “Would it be good for science to have the Nobel prize done for teams? Yes. Because lots of science is teams,” he acknowledged (currently, a maximum of three scientists may share a prize).

But the problem is that “humans need heroes”, he said. Making heroes out of a select few researchers – while inevitably a bit arbitrary – is a much better way, pragmatically speaking, of raising the profile of science, he thinks.

Scientists who narrowly missed out on a Nobel might well have given me a very different answer. But, of course, they were not at the conference.

David Matthews is a reporter at Times Higher Education. He is based in Berlin.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Does the Nobel prize undermine modern science’s aim of eliminating personal authority figures?

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Reader's comments (1)

new
... apotheosis of anyone including a nobelist will be clearly over the top ... many may agree. but to not treat them as a “ breed apart “ will be the polar opposite of apotheosis. Neither is to be welcome . It may be the (secondary) duty of the winner to then ‘recognize’ the big screws in his winning team. Basil jide fadipe

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