The Fairy Tale of the Nobel Prize

5:03 minutes

Potrait of Alfred Nobel, by Pe3k/Shutterstock.com

The Nobel Prizes are an annual tradition in which we celebrate the most important discoveries in the fields of chemistry, physiology or medicine, and physics. For many people, the Nobels represent science putting its best foot forward, and the planet’s brightest minds receiving the esteem they deserve. What could be bad about all that?

But in reality the Nobels aren’t exactly the feel-good story we want them to be. Dina Fine Maron, editor for medicine and health at Scientific American, discusses the fly in the ointment of the Nobel Prize.

Segment Guests

Dina Fine Maron

Dina Fine Maron is an editor for medicine and health at Scientific American in New York, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: Now it’s time to play good thing, bad thing. Because every story has a flip side. The Nobel Prizes– we just talked about them. They are an annual tradition which honors important discoveries in chemistry, physiology or medicine and physics. And the prestige of the prize imbues the winners as people with the brightest minds receiving the field’s highest honor. What could be bad about that?

Well, in reality, the Nobel Prize isn’t necessarily the feel good story we think it might be. There’s a fly in the ointment, maybe even more than one. With us to discuss the good and bad, Nobel Prize edition, is Dina Fine Maron, editor for medicine and health at Scientific American. Welcome to Science Friday.

DINA FINE MARON: Hi. Good afternoon.

IRA FLATOW: So we all know what the Nobel Prize looks like, what it looks like today. But what was the original purpose of the award? What were Mr. Alfred Nobel’s intentions here?

DINA FINE MARON: Sure. So his original intentions were to actually honor great work that happened in the last year. Obviously, we’ve gotten quite far from that now that the average prize is given 20 to 30 years after a discovery. But originally, he created this prize in his will to try to honor interesting accomplishments in the last year. And they were specifically in fields he himself was interested in or that he himself had worked in. That’s why the original categories were medicine or physiology, chemistry, physics, literature, and peace.

IRA FLATOW: But even though we’ve been giving out these awards for over 100 years– it’s good that these people are getting awards. That’s the good thing. There are some issues with them. Tell us about that.

DINA FINE MARON: Yeah. So of course, one of the biggest issues is that only three scientists can get the award in any category. And really, science now, that’s not how it works. Much more frequently, there will be a team of dozens or even hundreds of researchers working on a given project. But they’ve really become the footnotes of history. Because when someone wins a prize, if you’re not one of them, people forget that you were involved at all.

Scientific American, for example, has suggested allowing Nobels to go to organizations instead of individuals. So a team of dozens of researchers would get the award for something like uncovering the expansion of the universe rather than an individual. Also, obviously, the category limitations can be troublesome. If you are a scientist that works in geology, for example, there isn’t an award for you.

Sometimes, like in 2007, the Nobel Peace Prize was given for work on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. So they still won a Nobel award, but it wasn’t in one of the sciences traditionally. So perhaps it doesn’t have the same level of prestige.

And obviously, these awards don’t occur in a vacuum, either. Nobel prizes, as a rule, are not rescinded. So the committee choosing the awards may be reluctant to give the prize to a new discovery that hasn’t accumulated a lot of backup data yet. And consequently, this year, for example, a lot of science watchers thought the discovery of CRISPR would win for medicine, and new discoveries as far as gravitational waves would win for physics. Neither of those won.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. I had them on my. I lost on that one. I’m sorry. Go ahead. I didn’t mean to interrupt.

DINA FINE MARON: Me, too. So right, they’re subject to this political environment and natural hesitation to give the award to new or controversial work.

IRA FLATOW: Can the Nobel Committee take it on itself to fix this sort of thing? Didn’t they add an economics prize that the Nobel didn’t have at the beginning, too?

DINA FINE MARON: They did. It’s true. People who really watch Nobels consider the economics prize not one of the originals, what’s an other category. But they certainly could go about trying to fix it fix it themselves. And one of the things that a lot of scientists and a lot of journalists and science watchers have called for in recent years is more awareness about internal bias that might factor into who gets the awards.

It’s not hard to notice this last year, for example, the winners were all older white men. And that’s true throughout history. Most awardees have fit that category. Since 1901, with the first awarding of the Nobel Prizes, only 48 women have won in any of the categories. And only two of the almost 200 physics winners were women. And there have been a couple scientists in particular that people have been saying for years should really have won in that category who also happened to be female, and yet they have not won as of yet.

IRA FLATOW: OK. The only woman most people know is Marie Curie. Thank you for taking time to be with us, Dina.


IRA FLATOW: Dina Fine Maron is editor for medicine and health at Scientific American. We’re going to take a break. When we come back, we’re going to unveil your picks for our Golden Record 2.0. All the stuff– we have our judges out. We had hundreds of submissions. See if your name is on the list. Stay with us. We’ll be right back after this break.

Copyright © 2016 Science Friday Initiative. All rights reserved. Science Friday transcripts are produced on a tight deadline by 3Play Media. Fidelity to the original aired/published audio or video file might vary, and text might be updated or amended in the future. For the authoritative record of ScienceFriday’s programming, please visit the original aired/published recording. For terms of use and more information, visit our policies pages at http://www.sciencefriday.com/about/policies/

Meet the Producer

About Katie Hiler

Katie Hiler is an assistant producer for Science Friday and the proud mother of two cats, Charleigh and Sadie.

Explore More

Who’s Got the Biscotti? Mingling at the Ig Nobel Awards After-Party

The man of the hour is an octogenarian who claims more than 3,500 patents.

Read More