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Flashbacks December 2006

Nobel Quibbles

When it comes to the Nobel Prize, controversy and debate have always been the name of the game.

Wilson explained that despite the prize’s prestige—or perhaps because of it—its effect on laureates is not necessarily one of increased productivity or creativity. Some have speculated that the falloff in creativity might result from increased demands on the newly minted celebrity’s time, or from the laureate’s realization that he or she no longer has to work. But Wilson rejected those two hypotheses, arguing that prizewinners are dedicated to their work above all else. Instead, he distinguished between two groups of prizewinners: those, such as Albert Einstein, Ernest Rutherford, and Enrico Fermi, who are brilliant enough to produce breakthrough after breakthrough, and those, such as Wilhelm Konrad Roentgen, who are only capable of producing one breakthrough in their lifetime. Roentgen's research in X-rays earned him the first-ever Nobel Prize in Physics, but afterwards he failed to make any further significant contributions to science:

Men like Einstein, Rutherford, Fermi, and other giants, who are bigger than the prize, can win it at any time of their lives, take it in their stride, and go on continuing to be fruitful; while Roentgen and others like him who are smaller than the prize are overwhelmed by it—a heavy crown is only for very strong kings.

As for Roentgen’s 1901 prize in physics, it did not go undisputed; he was accused of taking credit for one of his students’ work. “He was the first, but certainly not the last, Nobelist to become involved in an ugly struggle for credit,” Wilson noted.

Indeed, the controversies continued. Harvard historian Donald Fleming began his piece, “Nobel’s Hits and Misses” (October 1966) by surveying some glaring omissions throughout Nobel Prize history and enumerating the systemic flaws from which those poor choices had stemmed. He argued that the rules set forth in Alfred Nobel’s handwritten will, along with other restrictions added later, had diminished the quality and restrained the scope of the prizes.

Three of the limitations were imposed by Nobel himself: that literature had to be ‘idealistic’ to qualify; that science meant a discovery, invention, or improvement, with the narrow definition of ‘discovery’ implied by his coupling it with the other terms; and that all prizes should be for the work of the preceding year.

He expanded upon this last criticism of the prizes in science by outlining an additional difficulty faced in that category: prizes were to be awarded only to individuals, yet many significant breakthroughs in science are driven by collaborative, incremental work. Important medical advances, such as the discovery of sex hormones and vitamin D, he noted, had been overlooked because they resulted from the work of too many scientists.

He made special mention of a few of the Nobel Prize selection committee’s “outright blunders.” The “bellicose” Theodore Roosevelt, he pointed out, had been an odd choice for the 1906 peace prize. Rudolf Eucken, he noted, is “a deservedly forgotten philosopher who was never important,” yet he was awarded the 1908 prize for literature. And J. J. R. Macleod, who had shared the 1923 prize in medicine for "the discovery of insulin," had in fact had very little to do with insulin's discovery. His winning of the prize, Fleming explained, had “arisen out of sheer ignorance of the facts”—Macleod had merely provided laboratory space and some general guidance to others. As for the choices for prizes in literature, Fleming described their record as “inexcusably bad”:

In addition to most of the giants of world literature, the non-winners have included Anna Akhmatova, Aleksandr Blok, Karel Capek, Jaroslav Hasek (of The Good Soldier Schweik), Stefan George, Arthur Schnitzler, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Robert Musil, Paul Claudel, André Malraux, Miguel de Unamuno, Ortega y Gasset, Italo Svevo, George Meredith, H. G. Wells, Katherine Mansfield, E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, Dylan Thomas, William James, Theodore Dreiser (the runner-up to Sinclair Lewis in 1930), Edith Wharton, Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and Robert Frost. Prizes for Swinburne and Paul Valéry were in the making when they died—not exactly prematurely: they were both in their seventies.

One of Fleming’s primary criticisms, shared by Hedin, was that the Nobel Prizes had failed to serve the original purpose of nurturing fledgling careers. Again, he turned to the prizes in literature to illustrate this point:

With the clear exception of Yeats and the possible exceptions of O’Neill, Camus, and Sartre, no author has been caught while his career was still on the upswing: the average age of the winners has been over sixty. Only seven men, including Kipling and Camus, have been recognized in their forties. It is easy to see how this dismal record came about. The Academy wanted to be sure about the winners’ ultimate stature. But this is quite simply a violation of Nobel’s entire purpose. He wanted to recognize the most impressive recent book, not to set the seal upon the work of a lifetime or to reward the capacity for literary and physical endurance.

Finally, in “Nobel Sentiments” (March 2002), P.J. O’Rourke joined the chorus of criticism, in the context of mocking an idealistic—and in his view ridiculous—joint letter that had been penned by 103 Nobel laureates. “Making fun is especially tempting,” he wrote, “to those of us who will receive invitations to Stockholm only in the form of brochures from Scandinavian cruise-ship lines. Let me give in to temptation.” He, too, had a list of glaring omissions:

Ernest Hemingway but not James Joyce? Toni Morrison but not John Updike? Dario Fo? Selma Ottilia Lovisa Lagerlöf? (She wrote The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, a fanciful account of a young boy’s travels across Sweden on the back of a goose.) And allow me to be the millionth person to point out that among the Nobel Peace Prize winners are Yasir Arafat, Shimon Peres, Henry Kissinger, Le Duc Tho, and International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. (“If the mushroom cloud doesn’t clear up, call me in the morning.”) For all I know, the lists of prizewinners in physics, chemistry, medicine, and economics are just as wack. I’m not competent to judge. Although the Cambridge University professor Brian Josephson (Physics 1973) says, “There is a lot of evidence to support the existence of telepathy.” And a co-discoverer of DNA, James Watson (Medicine 1962), is, at age seventy-three, researching the effects of sunshine on sex drive.

Despite the perennial nay-saying and controversy, the prizes still retain their prestige and authority. Perhaps it is a testimony to the relative insignificance of the prizes’ misfires—or simply to public ignorance of them—that, as Fleming writes, “the luster of the Nobel Prizes has remained absolutely undimmed as the most glittering recognition of intellect that can come to a man or woman of the twentieth century.”

—Stuart Reid
Stuart Reid is an intern for The Atlantic.
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