The Nobel and the not nearly so Nobel

July 20, 2001

As 250 living Nobel laureates prepare to celebrate the centenary of the prize, Joseph Rotblat looks at key omissions in its controversial history.

This year, the first of the third millennium, is the centenary of the first Nobel prizes. This historical event is being commemorated in many countries in a variety of ways: dedicated television programmes, articles in newspapers and magazines, special exhibitions, postage-stamp series and so on. But the most spectacular celebration will take place in December in Stockholm and Oslo. All living Nobel laureates - 250 of them - in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, peace and economics, as well as representatives of 15 peace organisations, have been invited to participate in the ceremonies. Since more than 90 per cent have already accepted, this is going to be an extraordinary assembly of the most famous and respected figures in the world of science and culture.

Apart from the jollifications, the programme includes centennial symposia on each of the fields in which the awards are made. For example, the peace prize symposium will have as its theme "The conflicts of the 20th century and the solutions for the 21st century". In the course of three days the laureates will apply their insights, convictions and creative thinking to the challenges and priorities of the future.

In addition, perhaps this unique opportunity should be used by the Nobelists to think creatively about the Nobel prizes themselves: how the Nobel-awarding process should be amended to take into account the changes that have occurred during the 100 years. These were radical, particularly in the sciences. There was a tremendous increase, both in the volume of scientific research and in the impact of science on society. The number of scientists and technicians grew exponentially, so that by the end of the century there were about 100 times more of them than at the beginning. (During that period the world population increased nearly four-fold.) Of course, the number of "masterminds" does not go up in the same proportion, but there can be no doubt that the number of scientists deserving a Nobel, by present standards, has grown considerably. Yet no more than three individuals can be honoured annually in each field.

The changed nature of science has also created problems. In the "big sciences", for example, where Nobel-winning discoveries are most likely to be made, advances are nowadays achieved by the joint effort of huge groups - it is common for a team to have many tens of members - and it is becoming highly invidious to pick out one to three individuals for the honour. Yet another item for thought is the negative effect the Nobel prize itself may have on the progress of science. The prestige of the prize is so great that areas of research likely to lead to a prize are disproportionately attractive to talented young scientists. There is also an ethical element here. In pursuit of a Nobel, scientists become so fearful of their ideas being stolen that they carry out their work in great secrecy, thus breaching a basic tenet of science: openness.

These and other shortcomings need to be rectified, and the first requirement towards this is a better understanding of the process governing the Nobel prize awards, in other words, the criteria for nominations and the procedure for the final selection by the relevant institutions. In this respect, Burton Feldman's The Nobel Prize is very useful.

In a lively and witty style, Feldman narrates the history and workings of the Nobel Foundation. After sketching the life and career of its founding father, Alfred Nobel, Feldman goes methodically through the six categories of prizes, starting (unusually) with literature, followed by physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, peace and economic sciences (the latter was instituted only in 1968 and is still disdained by some members of the Nobel Foundation). The book ends with a full and comprehensive list of Nobel laureates, in chronological order for each category. Several appendices tabulate specialised classifications, such as distribution by nation, or by gender (there have been 29 women laureates out of a total of 700), and finally a list of recipients of Jewish origin (128, nearly 20 per cent).

Apart from analysing the - not-always-obvious - rationale behind the awards in the different fields, Feldman also dwells on the very large number of those who in his opinion deserved a Nobel but were left out in the cold. As is well known, many great writers were passed over for a Nobel. But besides the well-known omissions, Feldman's list contains unexpected names such as Adam Mickiewicz, who was no doubt a great poet but died in 1855. (Nobel prizes are, as a rule, not awarded posthumously.) The book highlights some unusual features about the awards. Thus, Lord Rutherford, experimental physicist par excellence , was honoured with a prize in chemistry. Albert Einstein received a physics prize for his contribution to the photo-electric effect, but not a second prize for his most famous work, the theory of relativity. On the other hand, Marie Curie was awarded two prizes, one in physics, the other in chemistry, for her work on radioactivity.

Linus Pauling presents a special case. He too was the recipient of two Nobels, one in chemistry for his work on chemical bonding, and a second in peace for his campaign against nuclear testing. But his anti-nuclear stand prevented his becoming the only person to be awarded three Nobels. In the early 1950s, he was very close to discovering the structure of DNA, and planned a visit to London to examine X-ray crystallographic photographs that would have verified his hypothesis. But he was a suspected Communist sympathiser, and his passport was revoked by the US authorities. So it was Francis Crick and James Watson who had a look at the photographs, and this led them to the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA, and to the 1962 Nobel prize in medicine (shared with Maurice Wilkins).

The story of the prize for the discovery of nuclear fission still evokes sombre thoughts. It was awarded to the German scientist Otto Hahn in the field of chemistry, although fission is a purely physical phenomenon. Hahn established the identity of the elements produced at fission, and for this he deserves the award; though it should have been shared with his collaborator, Fritz Strassman. But neither of them understood the nature of their findings, and it was only when Lise Meitner, who used to work with Hahn before her forced exile to Sweden, told her nephew, Otto Robert Frisch, about the chemists' observations, that the concept of fission emerged. I am convinced - from the opinions about Frisch held by many scientists and based on my personal knowledge of him - that he was the originator of the idea. It was, in fact, Frisch who detected the emission of energy at fission: the most important feature of the discovery in its awesome applications for both peaceful and military purposes. He should have received the prize in physics, perhaps jointly with Lise Meitner; I have nominated him for the award several times without success. In Feldman's book, the name of Frisch is not mentioned even once. This is a serious omission.

There is another episode I can embellish from personal involvement. In describing the wrong guesses often made about forthcoming awards, Feldman cites the names that came up for the 1995 peace prize, but misses out one who was considered a "dead cert" in Britain: prime minister John Major, for his efforts to bring peace to Northern Ireland. Not only the newspapers but Tory Party leaders also were convinced that Major would get the prize. The day of the announcement, Friday October 13, happened to be the last day of the annual Tory party conference in Blackpool, where Major was scheduled to give the main speech rousing the flagging spirits of the ranks. The start of his session was even postponed to coincide with the timing of the award in Oslo, so that the prime minister could enter the hall with the maximum possible fanfare, as a Nobel laureate. Imagine the anticlimax when the recipients turned out to be myself and the Pugwash Movement.

Feldman's treatment of the peace prize is, in my opinion, not up to standard. A faux pas at the very beginning of the book is puzzling, considering the thoroughness of his research. In describing in detail the ceremony of presenting the awards in Stockholm, he informs us that the laureates sit on the stage "in a fixed order of precedence..., first physics, then chemistry, medicine, literature, and peace, with economics... bringing up the rear". But from the start, the peace prize ceremony has taken place not in Stockholm but in Oslo (at that time Christiania), in the presence of the king and queen of Norway, in a significantly different procedure from that in Stockholm. There is no mention of the Oslo ceremony in Feldman's book.

Nuclear disarmament is treated rather shabbily. The chapter on the peace prize contains sections on its various aspects, such as the United Nations, international peace, intervention, peaceful reforms, and even on women Nobelists, but there is no section on nuclear disarmament, even though quite a few awards were made in this area. Thus, Philip Noel Baker and Alfonso Garcia Robles receive no mention; others, such as Alva Myrdal, Linus Pauling, Mikhail Gorbachev, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, are mentioned but not in connection with the efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons.

Despite these shortcomings, this book is highly recommended. Apart from being timely, it provides a much-needed understanding of the intricacies contrived to fulfil the bizarre will of Alfred Nobel; it contains a penetrating analysis of the philosophy behind it; and it presents the divergent views held about the prize in the past, and thoughts about possible future developments. As the author makes plain, some would like to see all the Nobel prizes wished away as a plague of celebrity that corrupts writers and scientists, while others see them as a desperately needed symbol of authority and coherence in an age when all standards are under attack. Feldman stands somewhere between these extremes, and he is right in implying that some changes should be made.

With all its flaws, the prize has become established as a unique and venerable institution. Scientists will continue the pursuit of the Nobel at the end of the rainbow, and the general public will view it with awe as the summit of human intellectual achievement.

Sir Joseph Rotblat, Nobel laureate, was president, Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, from 1988 to 1997.

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