Nobel's Hits and Misses

Alfred Nobel invented dynamite and smokeless powder, and mistakenly hoped that those discoveries would make war too horrible to be countenanced. He held high hopes, too, that his annual five prizes for men who had conferred “the greatest benefit on mankind” would diminish nationalism and cement peace. What have the Nobel Prizes achieved? With award time approaching, Harvard historian Donald Fleming provides an illuminating survey of the Nobel Prizes and some speculation on the 1966 winners.

Only about six hundred people will have won a Nobel Prize in the whole course of the twentieth century. What difference will it make to the rest of the human race? What good and what harm have the Nobel Prizes done to society?

One of the main objects that Nobel had in view was to reduce nationalism by focusing upon contributions to the world community. Here his aim has been achieved in two ways. He permanently reduced the claustrophobic aspects of life in Scandinavia by forcing the Swedes and to a lesser extent the Norwegians to be on the alert for constructive achievements anywhere in the world. On a wider scale but less intensively, the Nobel Prizes have conferred a unique international visibility upon men and women of many nationalities and annually reminded each nation of its indebtedness to the others. The effects of this are impalpable, but not to be despised.

Nobel’s other principal object was to call attention to what the winners had contributed and make it easier for them to contribute more. Many authors have acquired a wider audience for their work, particularly in translation, including the motley troop shepherded into American editions by Alfred and Blanche Knopf. On the other hand, the prospect of the authors’ paths being smoothed for further bursts of creativity has been greatly reduced by the high average age of the winners in this category.

The scientific winners have been younger. Besides that, it is easier to conceive of intellectually productive improvements in the working conditions of a scientist than of a writer. There is no doubt that a scientist can write his own ticket after he gets the one accolade that everybody has heard of. If he breaks a long drought of Nobel Prize winners in his country or institution, his leverage becomes tremendous. The most sensational recent example came last year when the geneticists François Jacob, André Lwoff, and Jacques Monod of the Pasteur Institute in Paris shared the first Nobel Prize in science awarded to any Frenchman in thirty years. They and their colleagues had been trying for some time to take over the administrative council of the institute from a body of antique and highly conservative politicians who were dragging their feet about getting the scientists’ salaries up to the level of the Sorbonne, stalling on the construction of a building for molecular biology, and refusing to accept financial support from the French government. There were no signs that this revolt was getting anywhere till the bolt of lightning from Stockholm. The three winners turned the inevitable press conference into a fierce assault upon the generally bad conditions for scientific research in France. Within two weeks of their return in triumph from Stockholm, the scientists had gained control of the institute and the old council was on the way out.

This it the credit side of the ledger, but every single item can be turned inside out to demonstrate that the Nobel Prizes have done considerable harm as well. The Nobel Foundation itself has published a tabulation by nationalities, and lists of the winners almost invariably give nationalities. According to the Nobel Foundation’s own rather arbitrary reckoning, generally but not always by citizenship at the time of award, 87 Americans have shared in 63 prizes, 58 winners fro Great Britain in 50 prizes, 52 Germans in 50, 38 Frenchmen in 32, 16 Swedes in 16, 12 Swiss in 11, and 12 Russian in 9. Tabulations of this kind, and the mentality they reflect and foster, have infected the Nobel Prizes themselves with the nationalistic tendencies that Nobel was trying to reduce.

This is not the only numbers racket which the Nobel Prizes have created. The scientific standing of American universities is frequently correlated with their roster of Nobel laureates. For what it is worth, and that is a big question, here is one man’s reckoning of the score to date. By any standard, the top of the league is Harvard. Counting men and women on the faculty when they got the prize, Harvard has had 13 participants in 11 prizes, Columbia 8 in 7, Berkeley 8 in 6, Caltech 6 in 6, the Rockefeller Institute 5 in 4, Washington University, St. Louis, 4 in 3, Bell Laboratories 4 in 2, Chicago 2 in 2, Cornell 2 in 2, and Stanford 2 in 2. By the standard of Nobel Prizes received for work done in whole or part at the institution in question, Harvard has had 13 participants in 10 prizes, Columbia 9 in 7, Berkeley 7 in 5, Chicago 5 in 5, Stanford 5 in 4, Washington, St. Louis, 5 in 4, the Rockefeller Institute 4 in 4, and Caltech 4 in 4. Of Nobel Prize winners on the faculty in June, 1966, and not emeritus, Harvard had 8, Berkeley 7, plus 1 on leave as chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, Stanford 5, Caltech 3, and Columbia 3. By the standard of prizes awarded since 1960, Harvard has had 5 participants in 5 prizes, Berkeley 2 in 2, Columbia 1 in 1, and no other American university any at all. It is a curious fact that no member of the MIT faculty has ever received a Nobel Prize for work done there.

As long as everybody remembers that these rankings are bound to shift about over the years, what harm can they possibly do? The answer is that here, as elsewhere, the use of the Nobel Prizes as a yardstick encourages a narrow and unbalanced conception of modern science. There are no Nobel Pries in mathematics, astronomy, geology, psychology, or social science, let alone engineering, and no commensurate forms of recognition to be acquired. What is more, there is a basic asymmetry in the Nobel Prizes that do exist. As distinguished from the breadth of the mandate in physics or chemistry, there is no prize in biology in general, merely in physiology or medicine. Karl von Frisch, the discoverer of the language of bees, and Konrad Lorenz, the discoverer of “imprinting” in young animals—that is, the process by which they find out what kind of animal they are—have been turned down for Nobel Prizes on the ground that their work does not bear directly upon human beings. But the most serious consequence of the narrow mandate in physiology or medicine has been the exclusion of all students of evolution. If Charles Darwin had been living in the twentieth century, he could never have won a Nobel Prize.

Even if there had been a Nobel Prize in biology, the probabilities are that Darwin could not have won it for the doctrine of evolution through natural selection. For Nobel’s insistence upon a “discovery,” “invention,” or “improvement” as the occasion for the awards he did establish was calculated to rule out the great synthesizing concepts by which “discoveries” in the narrow sense are encompassed and elicited.

In physiology, for which there is a Nobel Prize, the most stimulating concept to be formulated in the twentieth century has been the doctrine of “homeostasis,” the self-regulating tendencies of the human organism under stress. The enunciator of this concept, Walter B. Cannon of Harvard, never got a Nobel Prize, and on the occasions when he was adjudged prizeworthy, it was not for homeostasis. Albert Einstein did win the Nobel Prize in physics for 1921, but the citation deliberately avoided any reference to the theory of relativity, spoke vaguely of his unspecified “services to theoretical physics,” and hastened on to the safe ground of rewarding him for hi “discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect.” Sir Charles Sherrington’s magisterial concept of the “integrative action of the nervous system” did not figure in his citation either.

The Nobel system has operated to exclude the greatest ideas in science, the integrating concepts that keep it from flying apart into a million isolated fragments. Anybody solely dependent on following the Nobel citations would be imbibing a narrowly positivistic conception of science as an accumulation of many hard little pellets of empirical knowledge to be shaken free of any conceptual matrix in which they were unaccountably embedded. It is a peculiarly end-of-the-nineteenth-century view, comprehensible in a man of Nobel’s generation and outlook but now hopelessly antiquated as a way of looking at science and the dynamics of scientific progress.

In the measure that laymen, including university presidents, form their impressions of science from the Nobel Prizes, they are missing the true scope of science and some of the greatest scientific contributions. It is improbably that many scientists are misled in the same way. The danger with them is that some of the most brilliant young men will confine their ambitions within the terms of the Nobel Prizes for which they are already bucking at the start of their careers. They will understand that it will do them no good to be deeply thoughtful about their work unless they make clear-cut empirical discoveries, or at any rate, predictions of empirical discoveries subsequently verified; and that if they make the discoveries or predictions, the deep thoughtfulness will not improve their chances. The discovery of a new technique or therapy, or better still, an elusive nuclear particle, will cut more ice than the most profound conceptual clarification. No doubt there are many factors that push a young scientist in this direction. The point is simply that the Nobel Prizes to nothing to redress the balance. On the contrary, they tend to penalize the deepest insights into nature.

Whether the Nobel Prizes have done more harm than good must remain a matter of opinion. They have certainly done more harm than is commonly suspected. But the practical question is whether they could do less harm and more good in the future.

The most profitable experiment that could be made with the prize in literature would be to go back to Nobel’s express intention of honoring a recent book rather than a life’s achievement. If this were done, it ought to be combined with much greater receptivity to experimental work, either in technique or in content. For example, a real service could be performed by identifying the best representatives of the theater of the absurd and differentiating them from the authors of meretricious work who are merely exploiting a vogue. Such awards might conceivably be “worse” in retrospect than under the present system, but they would be useful, which is more than can be said for crowning authors in their sixties after their reputations are securely established.

In science, there would be no insuperable difficulty in reinterpreting the prize for physiology or medicine to take account of the best contributions to evolutionary science. In the age of space travel, the physics prize could and should be stretched to include astrophysics. In all three scientific fields, the Nobel committees should frankly move beyond Alfred Nobel’s narrow conception of a “discovery” to recognize the significance of insights and conceptual clarifications.

Meanwhile the curtain is going up. Who will win this time? There has never been any telling about that, but here are some deserving people who appear to be qualified under the present system. In chemistry, Neil Bartlett of the University of British Columbia was the first to demonstrate that the so-called “inert” or “noble” gases could form stable compounds. In physiology or medicine, all of the following men richly deserve a Nobel Prize: Albert Lehninger of Johns Hopkins, the discoverer of the function of the mitochondrion in effecting energy transfers in cells; Murray Barr of the University of Western Ontario, the discoverer with E. G. Bertram of sex chromatin, by which the genetic sex of any human cell can be determined (already adjudged prizeworthy); J. H. Tjio and Albert Levan, working in Sweden, the discoverers of the true number of human chromosomes (already adjudged prizeworthy); the Englishman C. E. Ford, who first correlated human pathological conditions with the possession of too many or too few chromosomes now the accepted explanation of mongolism). It is probably too late to hope that a prize will be given to the Australian Sir Norman Gregg for his discovery of the effect of German measles in early pregnancy upon the fetus, or the great student of the brain Wilder Penfield of McGill University. The men who have made the most spectacular recent discovery are Henry Harris and J. F. Watkins of Oxford, who succeeded in 1965 in producing the first hybrid cells between different animal species, including a cross between human cells and mouse cells. Harris and Watkins may well have to wait a couple of years for a Nobel Prize, but it is difficult to believe that they can be passed over for very long.

In literature there has never been a Japanese winner; the Swedish Academy is lusting after new literatures to embrace, and the novelist Yukio Mishima would be a respectable figure by world standards. There are at least three Italian writers of appropriate stature, the novelist Alberto Moravia and the poets Giuseppe Ungaretti and Eugenio Montale. Samuel Beckett is too much to hope for. But perhaps the most distinguished recipient would be either the greatest living poet in English, Robert Graves, or the greatest living poet in Spanish, Pablo Neruda.

Who will actually win? That is another matter.

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