Dying Eyes on the Prize

It’s that time of year again, so that this week the world awaits the series of announcements about those famous Scandinavian awards that people in various fields of the arts and sciences are just dying to win: the Nobels.

Except wait: scientists, writers, economists, etc. are in fact not dying to win their respective Nobel prizes (as they are doing, for example, to be buried in a certain renowned or favorite cemetery) since it’s in the rules that they can only be awarded to living people! That stipulation, however, as we read in this piece from Belgium’s La Libre Belgique, is increasingly causing problems.

“The Nobel requires patience, perhaps too much.” Put plainly (and alliteratively), the perceived problem is that too many who deserve the prize are dying before they can be awarded it. It’s hardly a new concern: perhaps the most famous case was that of Leo Tolstoy, acclaimed as one of the world’s best novelists of all time, including during his own lifetime, who nonetheless never was recognized by the Nobel committee by the time he died in 1910.

Then again, that was the Literature Prize (first awarded, along with most of the others, in 1901), for which the relevant authorities have wielded through the years rather unfathomable selection criteria that, if anything, seem to have most to do with spreading that prize most broadly around the world – after Scandinavian writers are first covered most generously – rather than with more reasonable considerations such as general literary acclaim (example: Philip Roth). With the Nobel prizes for the sciences one might assume a more straightforward process.

No doubt it is – but the problem remains that it still takes too long to identify and award suitable recipients. It’s an article in the magazine Nature that has raised this issue again in particular, and in that (as reported in the Libre piece) we read:

Before 1940, the Nobels were awarded more than 20 years after the original discovery for only 11% of the laureates in physics, 15% in chemistry and 24% in medicine. Since 1985, however, this long delay has affected 60%, 52% and 45% of these prizes, respectively.

The prime example cited in this piece is the identification of the Higgs Boson, the subject of last year’s Nobel Prize for physics: that original discovery dates back to 1964, and in fact one American-Belgian scientist credited with a large part in the achievement, Robert Brout of the Universit√© Libre of Brussels, died before he could share in the prize.

On the other hand, it is also very possible to imagine a Nobel being awarded too early, namely to award a seeming scientific advancement that later turns out not to amount to anything. Here the counter-example given is “cold fusion,” all the rage around 1989 when it seemed that energy creation through nuclear fusion could be accomplished without the necessity for attaining temperatures at the super-hot level required for when it occurs in nature – namely inside the Sun. That alleged breakthrough of more than twenty years ago has never been further confirmed.

What to do? According to this article, prior to 1974, when the the rules changed, Nobel Prizes could in fact be given to those already dead; maybe it’s time to change them back again, except that that still is really not much of a reward to the writer or scientist who is already six feet under. Or another commentator in this piece pleads for other prizes that are not so strict in their selection criteria – I suspect these types of prizes already exist in science, although I couldn’t name any of them. I do know that all sort of “lesser” prizes are there for works of literature – the Man-Booker Prize comes to mind – except that, again, we probably have to set literature apart from science as an area of endeavor subject to more widely varying and fickle selection criteria.

It so happens that the awarding of the 2014 Nobel Prize for Physics was announced earlier today, and it went to three Japanese researchers who invented blue light-emitting diodes (LEDs), essential for later developments in television and LED lighting. Sure enough, this advance happened starting around 1986. And if you go to that BBC News page about it, it does seem that Prof. Akasaki of Nagoya University, in particular, is getting rather long in the tooth so that you have to be happy that he managed to stick around long enough to get his due.

Then again, there does seem to be some small amount of what you might call “death insurance” (or “fudging”) that is applicable, as we can recall from 2011 when the Canadian scientist Ralph Steinman actually died three days before he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine, unknown to the Nobel committee; they then made an exception in that case and stuck with that award anyway.

That didn’t do the expired Prof. Steinman much good in the end, of course. It’s amusing to read his Wikipedia entry:

Steinman’s daughter said that he had joked the previous week with his family about staying alive until the prize announcement. Steinman said: “I know I have got to hold out for that. They don’t give it to you if you have passed away. I got to hold out for that.”

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