editorial A noble prize

The 2009 in will soon be awarded amid the usual speculation, angst, disagreement and elation — but is it really worth all the fuss?

Imagine a world where Christmas comes Richard Ernst (Chemistry, 1991) said “After once a year, but only to one, two or three I won a Nobel Prize I suddenly turned boys or girls who have been especially into an omniscient sage, whereas formerly good. All the other well-behaved children I was simply a workaholic”5. Richard receive no gifts, and those lucky few who Feynmann (, 1965) also recognized were chosen become the centre of attention this, commenting6 “I believe that a and no longer have time to do the chores looking at non-scientific problems is just as that led to them being picked out in the dumb as the next guy”. first place. Not to mention that some of the It has been said that the history of the other children are now a little jealous of the Nobel Prize is the history of . This

presents and the attention bestowed on their DV may be true, but only to the extent that former playmates. Wouldn’t that be a shame? o history itself is written as the story of the Of course, many more children are monarchs and generals — in other words, given Christmas presents every year, ignoring the story of everyday people who but the Nobel Prize Committee cannot make up the bulk of the population. Indeed, be so generous. The rules of the Nobel / iStockphoto Tolstoy addresses this in War and Peace7, © Foundation — the private that calling for historians to develop a technique administers the award of the Nobel Prizes to ‘integrate’ the contribution of individuals. — stipulate that each prize can be awarded The effect of receiving the Nobel Prize on the Science in ’s time was a to only one, two or three individuals. careers of new laureates — and perhaps those pursuit of individuals, and not many of them Alfred Nobel’s will also stated that the who miss out — can be as as Alfred either. A handful of corresponding enthusiasts prizes should recognize work done ‘during Nobel’s famous invention. based predominantly in Europe and North the preceding year’1, and although ‘fresh’ America is a far cry from the worldwide discoveries were recognized in the early endeavour of modern research groups. Giving days of the prizes, today there is often a of a single prize to only three, to people still a prize to all the people who have contributed substantial time lag between a discovery and living, and the selection of those judged to a scientific advance — integrating the curve the phone call from . Nowadays, it ‘senior’ in the discovery. One of the most of work from summer students to group is generally the case that only discoveries that infamous cases is that of , leaders — would be fairer, but less likely to have passed years of experimental scrutiny whose X-ray photographs suggesting DNA’s generate easily digestible headlines. are rewarded. Indeed, when playing the double helix provided others with the eureka And that is where the Nobel Prize ‘guess the next laureate’ game, one tactic is to moment, but who died four years before is of great benefit to science — rather consider work that is so accepted, and in so the award of the prize for the molecular than individual . The day of the many text books, that people have forgotten structure of nucleic acids. It is perhaps announcement that someone had to actually perform the surprising to see that Wikipedia’s Nobel is the one day of the year that chemistry experiments that led to the discovery. Prize controversies page3 is longer than that is guaranteed to generate headlines, and Alfred Nobel made his great fortune as on the prize itself. positive ones at that. an industrial , with inventions in Being awarded the prize is not without So that is why we should care about weapons technology beyond just . its drawbacks, especially with the increased the deliberations of Gunnar von Heijne, He bought Bofors, which he shaped into attention and demands on laureates’ time. Astrid Gräslund, Måns Ehrenberg, the armament manufacturer that it still is The prospect of such attention led Sven Lidin, Lars Thelander and today2, albeit in a different form. Conversely, (Physics, 1933), an intensely private man, Håkan Wennerström before they decide he also attempted to buy a Swedish evening to consider turning down the prize, but it who to give the medallion(s) to this newspaper, in order to “use its influence was suggested that this would generate more year. It is a global showcase for chemistry, against armaments”. In this, and the publicity than accepting it4. Furthermore, and our subject deserves to have laureates establishment of the prizes that now bear elevation to the status of Nobel Laureate we can all be proud of. ❐ his name, was Nobel trying to atone for gives enough extra weight to their opinions the blood shed by his discoveries? Albert — any opinions — that the temptation to References 1. http://nobelprize.org/alfred_nobel/will/index.html Einstein (Physics, 1921) said as much, in a use that status to further causes close to the 2. http://www.baesystems.com/Businesses/LandArmaments/ speech after the use of the terrible weapon heart must be strong. Even such a revered Divisions/BAESystemsAB/Divisions/Bofors/index.htm that he had been instrumental in creating. figure as chemistry laureate 3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nobel_Prize_controversies Einstein’s Nobel Prize was not a (1954), it could be argued, had mixed 4. Feldman, B. in The Nobel Prize: A History of , Controversy controversial one, but the fact that he results: his campaign to stop nuclear testing and Prestige 155 (Arcade, 2001). 5. http://www.scienceblogs.de/lindaunobel/2009/06/so-what-did- received only one has been debated at length resulting in another Nobel Prize (, you-do-after-you-won-a-nobel-prize.php — as have many other awards. Much of this 1962), whereas his work on C was 6. Feynmann, R. P. The Pleasure of Finding Things Out (Perseus, 1999). stems from limiting the number of recipients not accepted by the medical establishment. 7. Ahearn, S. T. Am. Math. Monthly 112, 631–637 (2005). chemistry | VOL 1 | OCTOBER 2009 | www.nature.com/naturechemistry 509

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