Oct 08, 2014

    Don't get carried away by 'silly' Nobel prizes

    ANOTHER year, another round of Nobel prizes. Another opportunity for me to write about how silly the Nobel prizes are. I'm talking about all the Nobel prizes: not just the "fake" Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science, or the peace prize that went to Yasser Arafat, but even the natural-science prizes.

    A few of the prizes' recipients have criticised the institution in the past. Richard Feynman, one of America's greatest scientists, called them "Alfred Nobel's other mistake", lamenting the attention it brought him and claiming that the prizes were pointless "epaulettes" that focused too much on social status.

    But there are other reasons to dislike the Nobel prizes. The big one is that they perpetuate the myth of the lone genius, who brings forth scientific theories in a flash of brilliance.

    This is the story we like to tell ourselves about how science gets done and, in fact, it does occasionally work this way - think of Isaac Newton retreating from the world to lay down the foundations of classical physics in one masterful volume.

    But this is far and away the exception, especially in the modern, interconnected age.

    Special relativity, which we normally attribute to Albert Einstein, was actually a team effort: Hendrik Lorentz figured out some of the maths, Henri Poincare figured out more, Einstein found some implications, and Hermann Minkowski formalised the whole thing. Possibly because of the obvious group effort, no Nobel Prize was ever awarded for special relativity. That might be a good thing.

    Because each Nobel Prize can be given to a maximum of only three people, other scientists could not have shared the prize even if the committee had recognised their essential contributions to the final theory.

    The problem is even worse when the prize-winning work is experimental, because experiments are even more collaborative than theoretical work.

    Picking one - or even three - out of a team to receive a prize that puts a vast gulf of prestige between them and their collaborators does a disservice to the team effort. It also seems like it would tend to incentivise credit-hogging.

    In addition to giving too much credit to too few people, the Nobel prizes have the disadvantage of not being backdated. This means that great scientists from ages past, who were probably prevented from receiving the prize only because of sexism or racism, will remain Nobel-less forever. Speaking of discrimination, another problem with the Nobel prizes is that they are awarded almost exclusively by Swedish and Norwegian people.

    In fact, there is a famous chart showing that Nobel prizes per capita correlate with chocolate consumption, which is of course most popular in northern Europe.

    So, although this week's Nobel Prize winners will undoubtedly be well deserving of their prizes and deserve congratulations, it remains true that the Nobel Prize is a bit of a silly institution.

    Does this mean we should get rid of the Nobel prizes or stop paying attention to them?

    No, because they serve an important purpose by bringing fame to scientists, which raises the prestige of science in the eyes of a public that would usually rather idolise sports stars.

    But nevertheless, among those who know the prizes' limitations, it's best not to take them too seriously.