Life after death gives birth to a significant prize

The Road to Stockholm

January 17, 2003

In 1867 Alfred Nobel patented dynamite. Within three years he was head of the largest explosives cartel in the world, with patents in every industrialised country. At the height of his success his brother Ludvig died. A French newspaper confused the names and published an obituary of Alfred. Rob Parsons imagined a scenario such as this: "Alfred... sat down with a cup of coffee, read his own obituary and saw what people had made of his life. But he read phrases like 'merchant of death' and 'his fortune was amassed finding new ways to mutilate and kill'. As Nobel held the newspaper in his hands, he vowed that this was not how he should be remembered, and he decided that... his life would be not just successful but significant."

During his lifetime, Nobel used his wealth to encourage and promote the arts, science and peace, but it is for the prizes endowed in his will that Nobel is remembered. The will states: "The whole of my remaining realisable estate shall be dealt with in the following way: the capital, invested in safe securities by my executors, shall constitute a fund, the interest on which shall be annually distributed in the form of prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind." The interest was to be divided into five parts, apportioned to physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace.

Istvan Hargittai's book arose out of a lecture given in Cambridge - "How to win a Nobel prize". He says he has talked with 70 Nobel laureates and can share his impression of their careers. He writes: "I am not a historian, neither am I a sociologist; I am a scientist. My book illuminates some decisive moments, both of the scientists' careers en route to the Nobel prize and the science itself that is behind some of the contemporary Nobel prizes. It also covers some discoverers for whom the ultimate recognition from Stockholm never materialised."

The writing style is somewhat wooden, and much of the book reads more as a catalogue of facts than as a story, but those facts are fascinating. Chapters include: "Who wins Nobel prizes?", "What turned you to science?", "Is there life after Nobel prizes?" and "Who did not win?". Some of the answers show a pattern, such as the role of schoolteachers and research mentors, but mainly the chapters are an anthology of nuggets, including splendid insights. Lawrence Bragg inspired his students "to concentrate on problems of central importance, to approach them directly, to waste no time on trivialities".

There is a fascinating discussion of changes in research areas. "We can compare it to a master detective getting a fresh case: he sweeps clean his desk in a matter of hours and switches to his new task. Future Nobel laureates and other great scientists change the subjects and techniques of their research in a great variety of ways. What is common is the willingness and ability to change."

Hargittai emphasises the watershed nature of Nobel prizes. Because the prizes are so large, and the number who receive them is so small, the difference in outcome between those who are selected and those who are not is out of proportion to differences in contribution. This is exacerbated by the rule that no more than three people can share each prize. This can lead to an almost arbitrary exclusion of individuals who participated in a discovery (often students, such as those involved in the discoveries of pulsars and of the fullerenes). Being close to a Nobel prize but not being awarded one can be a cause of great misery. Jacques Monod commented: "The prize is very good for science and very bad for the scientists."

A biographer of Isambard Kingdom Brunel observed that he had made very little mention of 19th-century politicians. This was because, he explained, no politicians had nearly as much impact on life as the great engineers. Hargittai similarly bemoans how "British and French children have to learn about the respective kings, queens and presidents, but much less about the great scientists. Our students, our children, the general public, all of us would benefit from knowing a little more about science and how it comes about."

Growing up in Cambridge, I had two classmates at school who were each sons of Nobel laureates. I later shared digs with the grandson of a laureate. Perhaps this makes it easier for me to benefit from the inspiration of our great scientists without being overawed by the glittering prizes. I have seen how the best of them benefit not only from Nobel's generosity, but also from his example of wanting his life to be significant.

Andrew Briggs is professor of materials, University of Oxford.

The Road to Stockholm: Nobel Prizes, Science, and Scientists

Author - Istvan Hargittai
ISBN - 0 19 850912 X
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £19.99
Pages - 342

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