10 - What is the Nobel Prize? (w/ Rachel Kruger!)

10. What is the Nobel Prize? (w/ Rachel Kruger!)

To be a Nobel Laureate is one of the greatest honors that can be given. What does this prize represent? Where are the Prizes origins? Why are there fewer prizes in economics than other prizes? What are the complications with the Nobel Prize in today’s society? Was Alfred Nobel the last great Alfred? Let’s learn to be scientifically conversational.

Rachel - Square.jpg

General Learning Concepts

1)     What does the Nobel Prize represent?

a.     It’s a Prize! Six international prizes annually awarded for physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, economics, and promoting peace. It’s a prestigious award that represents a history of fantastically successful or important individuals: those who discovered X-rays, radioactivity, penicillin. When awarded, that individual is a Nobel Laureate: the word “Laureate” refers to being signified by the laurel wreath (Greek god Apollo wears a laurel wreath, sign of honor).

b.     Who would be awarded a Nobel? Messy, ignorant people who love puzzles… by the words of Oliver Hart (economics) Sir J. Fraser Stoddard (chemistry), J. Michael Kosterlitz (physics), and F. Duncan M. Haldane (physics) in 2016. You must be nominated by a member of a national government, members of some specific institutes, professors, former laureates, organizations who have won, members and former members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee.

2)     Who was Alfred Nobel?

a.     Timeframe: Born in 1833, passed on in 1896. His father was an engineer and inventor who experimented with blasting rocks in a line of constructing work. By the age of 17, it’s reported that Nobel was fluent in Swedish, Russian, French, English, and German. He had interests in English literature, poetry, chemistry, and physics. His father wanted him to develop his skills as a chemist in engineering and through this venue Nobel met Ascanio Sorero (who had invented a highly explosive liquid called nitroglycerine by mixing glycerine, sulfuric acid, and nitric acid). Nobel became fascinated with the liquid. Explosions seemed unable to deter him, despite one killing his brother Emil and others. He experimented adding things to the nitroglycerine and was capable of forming a solid paste that could be shaped – thusly, dynamite.

b.     Nobel’s Claim to Fame: Most famously known for producing dynamite, blasting caps, and smokeless gunpowder. He experimented in synthetics: like rubber, leather, and silk. The Nobel Prize (.org) site provides a list of 29 Swedish and 58 English patents though it is claimed as many as 355 patents: it shows that Nobel knew how to capitalize on his drive and success. Maybe beyond this was his interest in social and peace-related topics for the time in which he was alive.

c.     Nobel’s Will: Nobel, reported to despise lawyers, drafted his own will. This caused issue when he left half of a percent of his total estate in his will for his family. In today’s value, his worth was valued approximately 200 million American dollars. Additional issues included creating a foundation that was to give out the prize that he had wanted created. Executors of the will had to create the Nobel Foundation, which was established in 1900. Each prize today is worth around 1 million US dollars for the whole prize.

i.     Money isn’t everything: Nobel prizes cause individuals to be asked to speak at far greater rates; there are assertions that publications are sometimes more rigorously reviewed or sometimes more easily passed through, and other smaller perks. The University of California at Berkeley has special, tenure long parking spots for Nobel laureates.

3)     What are the different types of Nobel Prizes?

a.     Five Nobel Prizes and a Prize in Economic Sciences: Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature, Peace Prize were all established in 1901 from the Nobel Foundation from Alfred Nobel. However, in 1968, Sweden’s central bank established the Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. Still, the awards are given at the same ceremony in Sweden as the other Nobels (excluding the Peace Prize, which is in Norway).

4)     Fun Tidbits

a.     First Person to Win Two Nobel Prizes: Marie Curie. She shared a 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics with her husband, Pierre Curie, for researching radiation and radioactivity. She later won the 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering radium and polonium and isolating radium. Additionally, Irene Joliot-Curie (daughter) won the prize in chemistry in 1935 with her husband, Frederic Joliot.

b.     Nobel Peace Prize and Nobel Prize in Chemistry: Linus Pauling, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1954 for research of the nature of the chemical bond (using quantum mechanics to describe chemical bonding) and for understanding structure of complex substances (in this case, the structure of the alpha helix, a basic but important structural component of many proteins). He also was awarded the 1962 Nobel Peace prize (one year later, in 1963) for his outspokenness from the atomic bombing of Japan, drafting the Hiroshima Appeal, urging the USA, Soviet Union, and Great Britain to have a nuclear test ban treaty. Both of these prizes were unshared.

c.     Disparity of Nobel Prizes Today: There have been 51 Nobel Prizes awarded to women between 1901 and 2016, and 935 total awarded prize winners. The United States have won a tremendous amount of Nobel Prizes but a recognizable amount (30%) of awardees had been immigrants who traveled to the US. In general, Nobel laureates are getting older; that is, the prize is conferred on older individuals.

i.     Snubbed Women: Lise Meitner: 48 total nominations for physics. Meitner and Otto Hahn led a group at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin that first discovered nuclear fission of uranium. Hahn won the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for that discovery. Vera Rubin: provided evidence for the existence of dark matter by studying the way in which galaxies rotate—a feat that revolutionized our understanding of the universe. Died before winning the award. An ACS Chemical and Engineering article outlines more female scientists who are argued should have been Nobel Laureates.

ii.     People of Color: Only 14 Nobel Laureates have been black, and each were in non-scientific fields. 10 in peace, 3 in literature, one in economics.

iii.     Group Science: There can be no more than 3 awardees per “discovery” (as Nobel Prizes are often discovery based). There are good examples, especially in physics, in which there are one thousand authors or more on a paper. As biologists Arturo Casadevall and Ferric Fang wrote in 2013, the Nobels promulgate the idea of the lone genius.

iv.     Science in Death: The Nobel Prize is not be to given posthumously. This can spell issues for deserving scientists who are older or at risk for their health. There are very few exceptions: since 1974, Nobel prizes could only be awarded posthumously if the recipient died between the award being announced and the traditional ceremony in December. The Nobel committee has announced Dr. Ralph Steinman (Rockefeller, born in Canada) had been awarded a joint Nobel in Medicine or Physiology in 2011, three days after he died. The Nobel committee did not know; after hours of meetings with the board of the Nobel Foundation, the decision was that his award was made in good faith that he was alive and that the reward would not be revoked. He died, in fact, treating himself for cancer using his own discoveries that netted him a Nobel Prize.

v.     Nobel Scientists should be treated with skepticism: William Shockley (1956 physics, invention of the transistor) was a proponent of eugenics, arguing for sterilization of low IQ individuals with an utter racial bias. James Watson (structure of DNA) also made racially charged comments about intelligence.

5)     Solicited Naïve Questions

a.     How are Sweden / Norway tied to the Nobel Prize? Nobel was born in Sweden. In his will, he declared that the four institutions in Sweden and Norway conferring the prizes would be ‘the Swedish Academy of Sciences, Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, the Academy in Stockholm’ and ‘a committee of five persons to be elected by the Storting’ (the Norwegian parliament). That committee of five is the one that awards the Peace Prize, and maybe why the prize is given in Norway. There is speculation that Nobel wanted these prizes properly distributed so no one country became too powerful with politics as the prize would have significance for peace.

b.     What are the Nobel Prizes made of? Up to 1980 the “Swedish” medals, each weighing approximately 200 g and with a diameter of 66 mm, were made of 23 carat gold. Since then they have been made of 18 carat recycled gold. The weight is set to 175 g for all medals, except for the Medal for the Prize in Economic Sciences. Its weight is set to 185 g.

c.     Has anyone been forced to decline a Nobel? Two individuals refused Nobel’s on their own behalf; four were forced to decline the Prize (three being forbade by Adolf Hitler and one from the authorities of the Soviet Union).

Calvin YeagerComment