Why don’t they hand out science Nobel prizes on the same basis as the Peace prize?

Barack Obama has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace essentially for effort: he’s trying hard, saying the right things but not yet delivered concrete results. (He’s also got much less close to nuclear disarmament than Ronald Reagan got in the Reykjavik summit with Mikhail Gorbachev.)

I’m pretty underwhelmed by the award as I would rather see the prize go to those who have produced results. Someone such as Denis Mukwege and the amazing work he has done getting treatment for those attacked during the Congo civil wars, including treatment for over 20,000 rape victims.

But why not apply the same logic to the sciences?

Find a scientist who has got the right intentions, tries hard – but hasn’t (yet) made a theoretical or research breakthrough.

In fact, the argument for doing this is rather better than for the Nobel Peace Prize. That’s because spending a lifetime doing research that only ends up confirming what everyone thought they knew anyway plays a vital role in science. It’s not glamorous, it doesn’t win you prizes – but this sort of confirmation that everyone isn’t all going off on the wrong track is crucial to science.

So why not reward this endeavour by giving a prize to someone for the valuable work of confirming rather than path-breaking?

(Or, alternatively, don’t do that. But also only give out the Nobel Peace Prize for tangible achievements.)

3 responses to “Why don’t they hand out science Nobel prizes on the same basis as the Peace prize?”

  1. My life’s work as a scientist includes several theoretical breakthroughs. The missing
    link in the origin of life – a form of ice which crystallises in liquid nitrogen and creates
    order (a laser beam) from chaos (fluctuating temperature). The nature of early life –
    a feeding machine concentrating selected substrates from the primordial soup using
    the laser light and trace elements. Theevolution of metabolic pathways, genes and
    protein synthesis from this starting point. The basic principles behind photosynthesis
    and muscle contraction. The evolution of histones which hold DNA uncoiled and predict
    the structure of chromosomes – the ‘chip in the brain’, how it measures time, stores
    and structures information. All this promises urgently needed advances in medicine,
    cybernetics and world peace. But I have no referees or publications due to chronic ill
    health. Will anyone volunteer to be my agent?

  2. Charles Kao, who was awarded (half of) this year’s Nobel Prize for Physics, earned it for being the key member of the team that invented optical fibre transmission, which he did at STL in Harlow in 1966. Nobody then knew whether optical transmission would really solve the limits they already saw to wire and coax cables, but by the 1980’s it was clear that it would become the basis for all the world’s voice and data transmission, (including the Internet). So why did it take the Nobel committee another 20 years to make the award?

    (My own very small part in the story at STL was to help develop a 75 Mbps system in 1971).

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