The Nobel Prize Has Some Competition

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A Russian billionaire is trying to one-up the world's most prestigious science award, but he's not the first.

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Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, who has just announced his competitor to the Nobel Prize. (Retuers)

The announcement of the Milner Prize in Fundamental Physics, with an unprecedented cash award of $3 million raises the stakes in big-time science. The Nobel's current approximate value is $1.2 million. Yet, in the long run, the Milner prize is likely only to reinforce the primacy of the benchmark in prestige, the Nobel.

Yuri Milner is not the first of the ultra-rich to attempt to one-up the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The Academy itself awards Crafoord Prizes, endowed by a Swedish industrialist, in fields not generally eligible for the Nobel. Prestigious as they are in those disciplines, few lay people in the U.S. have ever heard of them, and fewer still of the Kavli Prizes in astrophysics, neuroscience, and nanoscience. The Kyoto Prize is another illustrious award with special attention to Nobel gaps (including ecology and visual arts). There is a separate Japan Prize. The Templeton Prize was founded to highlight innovations in religion. 


And some prizes, like the Lasker Awards, are intended not as Nobel equivalents but as pre-Nobel recognition. According to the lore of ultra-elite science, a disadvantage of winning the Nobel Prize when relatively young is that one de facto becomes ineligible for other mega-prizes, unless one is the Dalai Lama.

Given all the new philanthropic fortunes and quests for national prestige in the 111 years since the foundation of the Nobel Prizes, the award's hegemony over the international prize world is remarkable. Criticism of individual awards and of policies is actually a tribute to the Nobel Prizes' continued preeminence. The reason is more than the prizes' age. It's a tribute to the careful management and public visibility of the nomination and selection process, to the excellent resources (initially printed, now online), and of course to the televised ceremony itself, with its ties to pre-1914 courtly ceremonial in an era of informalization.

Despite the credit that Milner deserves for his generosity, his approach doesn't seem likely to create Nobel-like prestige. According to the New York Times, "future recipients of the Fundamental Physics Prize, to be awarded annually, will be decided by previous winners." But can't the choices of even the most original minds, over time, become hostile to future innovators? Albert Einstein is often cited as an example of anti-theoretical (and possibly political or religious) prejudice by members of the Nobel Committee itself, which originally passed him over for the obscure discoverer of a new alloy. The physics laureate of 1901, X-rays discoverer Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, is said to have replied to a journalist's question on what he thought when he first beheld them: "I didn't think. I experimented."

But the beauty of the Nobel organization was its long-term flexibility and openness to external input. Röntgen's nominator, a University of Stockholm professor, was a non-winner. The question is now open. Will the Milner Prize become a quasi-Nobel by virtue of its stipend and distinguished first recipients? Or will it, as I suspect, only enhance the Nobel's hegemony, reserving the highest laurels for those mathematical and theoretical insights that have been demonstrated experimentally? Part of Nobel mystique is that Einstein himself had to pass this initiation rite.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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