Wonders of the Nobel world

December 21, 2001

Herb Kroemer and Sherwood Rowland select seven of their Nobel and near-Nobel favourites.

Max Planck, physics, 1918, and Albert Einstein, physics, 1921
Being a physicist, I naturally think first about physics and physicists, and Planck and Einstein immediately come to mind. Why? Because they simply changed our entire way of thinking.

The development of quantum mechanics
More physics: one of the great wonders of the 20th century was the development of quantum mechanics. It was truly a collective achievement, and I am not going to spend most of my remaining five votes by nominating several individuals separately. Besides, where do you draw the line? So let us leave all of quantum mechanics together as a single true wonder package.

Francis Crick and James Watson, physiology or medicine, 1962
The Double Helix simply redefined biology.

Marie Curie, physics, 1903; chemistry, 1911
In chemistry, I find it difficult to decide between four individuals who cannot possibly be combined into one single wonder: Dmitri Mendeleev, Josiah Gibbs, Marie Curie and Linus Pauling. Gibbs inexcusably was never even nominated for a Nobel, so I reluctantly exclude him. Mendeleev had been nominated repeatedly, but never chosen. So I have settled on Marie Curie: not only did she get Nobels in both physics ("radiation phenomena") and chemistry ("radium and polonium"), she was also one of the great scientific role models of all time.

Mikhail Gorbachev, peace, 1990
Gorbachev did more than just end the cold war. He also gave the people of Eastern Europe their freedom back. All without bloodshed. I grew up in East Germany, and, to me, if anyone ever really deserved the peace prize, it was him.

Ludwig Boltzmann
For putting thermodynamics on an atomic basis and in the process advancing atomism. Although nominated several times (including by Max Planck), he never received a Nobel prize. He was simply too revolutionary to appeal to the conservative physics committee of the first Nobel decade - as was Planck. But would there have been a Planck without Ludwig Boltzmann?

Herb Kroemer was awarded the Nobel prize for physics in 2000.

Winston Churchill, literature, 1953
The "brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values" cited by the Nobel committee, as well as his leadership, played a crucial role in preserving those values in our civilisation.

Albert Einstein, physics, 1921
He broadened to the very small and the very energetic the fundamental understanding of the universe beyond the classical understanding of Newtonian mechanics.

Otto Hahn, chemistry, 1944
The fission of uranium with its subsequent chain reactions leading both to nuclear power and to nuclear weapons has been a central development in 20th-century history and politics.

Willard F. Libby, chemistry, 1960
Libby revolutionised archaeology by providing a quantitative clock for knowing when events took place over the past 25,000 years. His Carbon-14 dating scheme also provided major advances in geophysics, geology, oceanography and history.

Guglielmo Marconi, physics, 1909
The transmission of information over long distances without the need for wires or other material connection has globalised the world.

George C. Marshall, peace, 1953
The Marshall plan for a Europe devastated by six years of total war was a major contributor to the rapid renaissance of Europe in the 1950s.

James Watson and Francis Crick, physiology or medicine, 1962
They opened the doors to full understanding of biological processes at the molecular level.


F. Sherwood Rowland won the Nobel prize for chemistry in 1995.

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