Time to renovate the Nobels ?
October 4, 2017 10:43 AM   Subscribe

Bad Astronomy's Phil Plait lays out problems of modern science and the Nobel awards.
posted by k5.user (14 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
The problem of "genius" has been on my mind for a very long time and I think it's relevant here. There are other kinds of gender bias, but this one is particularly stark when it comes to fields like math and science, where "genius" is prized (sometimes, literally given a prize). Men are just far more likely to be considered geniuses than women, all else being considered equal.

I'm sure that someone will point out that the Nobel is not a prize for genius--but I don't think this idea of "genius" can be separated out, here.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 11:00 AM on October 4 [5 favorites]


Well said. I was really excited when I read the headline this morning; of the several pop-sci physics books I read as a teenager, when I thought a physics career might be the way I'd go, Kip Thorne's Black Holes and Time Warps was my absolute favorite, and despite my career taking a different path, there's ever since been a little corner of my brain that thrilled at the idea of what LIGO and LISA might eventually tell us about our universe.

Then I actually read the article about the award and got to the pictures of the winners. Yet another three white dudes. And I was a whole lot less excited all of a sudden.
posted by solotoro at 11:17 AM on October 4


I'm sure that someone will point out that the Nobel is not a prize for genius

The Nobel Peace Prize can be given to organizations as well as individuals, many times for the same award. The fact that the science prizes can only be given to individuals and not to whole labs means that by their very nature they buy into and reinforce the Great Man theory of science.
posted by muddgirl at 11:42 AM on October 4 [15 favorites]


It seems like you could always pick one or three people who had the greatest individual contribution to science, even if that contribution isn't huge in the grand scheme of things. But awarding 3 people who happened to be the "board of directors" of a 40-year effort costing billions of dollars and involving thousands of brilliant people seems more like authority-worship than recognizing individual contributions.
posted by miyabo at 11:46 AM on October 4 [9 favorites]


I mean, could you just award the prize every year to the head of the NSF? They control more science than anyone else in the world. But if you replaced them with any other skilled individual, you'd get the same result.
posted by miyabo at 11:49 AM on October 4


I heard someone also complaining that the science prizes award people who are already the most prominent in their fields. What is the point of such a prize? Moving towards rewarding lesser-known individuals: either younger people or scientists who have been laboring on a project in relative obscurity for a long time might do more to advance science itself.
posted by latkes at 11:59 AM on October 4 [2 favorites]


Marie Curie (a woman) was the first person ever to win a double Nobel (one in physics, 1908, and one in Chemistry, 1911). I mention this not to detract from the issue or exonerate Nobel committee(s), but just as a reminder that women have been heavy hitters in Science for a long time, yet have certainly not received the highest public accolades for their work. Is the gender bias against women in science, particularly in the context of the Nobel prize, worse now than in the days before women even had the right to vote?! ARGH.
posted by k8bot at 1:19 PM on October 4 [4 favorites]


The Nobel Peace Prize can be given to organizations as well as individuals, many times for the same award. The fact that the science prizes can only be given to individuals and not to whole labs means that by their very nature they buy into and reinforce the Great Man theory of science.

Or at minimum, the cap on the number of individuals unavoidably supports this framing which looks really antiquated these days. But of course we're all kind of restating the premises of the article. I will say focusing on individuals does make it easier to tell appealing and memorable stories about discoveries but if the individual story isn't actually the true it's not the story that should be told...

I guess I don't really know exactly how the "average person" sees Nobels. I have a family member who worked with a couple of Nobelists in the past (and I met one socially though I was a kid at the time) and the impression I get is that people who actually work in science know there's a lot of luck involved - involved in making a discovery in the first place and then again involved in who will be recognized out of many arguably deserving - and people who win them tend to be as aware of that as anyone.
posted by atoxyl at 2:11 PM on October 4 [1 favorite]


What does it say that, when I saw the headline, I knew that the issue was going to be race and gender?

I mean, it' almost always race and gender.

Speaking as a white man, maybe we need a 100 year moratorium on giving prizes to white men....
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:22 PM on October 4 [2 favorites]


Maria Goeppert-Mayer is obliquely mentioned in the OP so I will use this as an excuse to share this slightly rambling story. I heard it from James Arnold* as an undergrad in a nuclear chem class he taught back in the '80s.

Arnold worked at Chicago with multiple current & future Nobel Prize winners, including Harold Urey, Maria Goeppert-Mayer, and most famously Enrico Fermi. (Fermi, he said, had a really annoying knack for solving problems in minutes during discussions and seminars that had stumped these other brilliant people for months or years.)

Goeppert-Mayer wasn't actually paid at Chicago--I guess she had a title but her husband had the real job as a professor so why pay her? This would've been the '50s. They did let her hang around the department though, perhaps because she had a Ph.D. and her husband was on staff and oh, yeah, she was doing literally Nobel-quality work at that time. She ended up working out a model of the nucleus that actually matched empirical data, unlike the earlier liquid drop model that needed a lot of fudge factors. According to Goeppert-Mayer one key moment in her work was discussing her problems with Fermi in his office, and him saying "have you considered spin-spin coupling?" She saw this was absolutely the right track, and then came the next key moment for her: the phone rang right after he said that, he picked up and she cleard out of there so she could work it up on her own, which she said was why she didn't have to share the prize with him.

Not the story though. I did warn you it rambled a bit.

UCSD was founded in 1960 and Harold Urey (himself a Nobel Prize winner) was tapped to set up the chemistry department. He got a lot of talent from Chicago, including Arnold and minor space geek celebrity Stanley Miller. He also tapped a world-class chemist, Joseph Mayer, who was lured to San Diego in part because the physics department at UCSD was willing to offer his wife Goeppert-Mayer an actual real job with a fargin' salary. At that point and only then did the University of Chicago offer to pay her. Her response was too little and more than a decade too late. They both joined an incredibly prestigious set of researchers at this new university. Goeppert-Mayer got the prize in '63, just a few years after she joined. She'd done all the work leading to it years before, and literally no one in the country had offered her a paid job before UCSD.

One thing I didn't know is the tidbit from following the links in the OP, which is that when she won a San Diego paper reported it as "San Diego mother wins Nobel Prize." Aargh!

*Arnold was really accomplished in his own right, having taken the first NMR of ethanol in the '50s and then being a key player in analyzing lunar rocks. And while it's not like I really knew him--he taught one elective class I took is all--he struck me as one of the most humble, generous people around, open-minded and excited by new research, discounting his own contributions and praising everyone he'd ever worked with. Except, for some reason, Edward Teller.
posted by mark k at 7:22 PM on October 4 [3 favorites]


More on topic I don't think the Nobels are especially bad on obscuring the team nature of science. They are many problems, of course. But any time you are arbitrarily singling out a few people as more worthy or recognition there are inherently problems; it's not like awarding it to all 1100 people listed on the LIGO paper would have been "fair" either. (They didn't all contribute equally, and I'm 100% sure there are people not on the paper who contributed more than the less impactful authors.)

And within the sciences, while there is certainly jealousy and sniping between groups, a lot of people who contributed but aren't named are happy to see their work honored. My boss's advisor won a few years ago, and while I can't see any sign he excited except for his advisor deep down there's got to be a bit of "This paper I was on back in the '70s was a bit of Nobel quality work." And 100% everyone knows who came from a Nobel winning lab.

impression I get is that people who actually work in science know there's a lot of luck involved

Absolutely, though I've also heard grumbling that you also need to lobby for it. You can't just do world quality work.

I heard someone also complaining that the science prizes award people who are already the most prominent in their fields. What is the point of such a prize? Moving towards rewarding lesser-known individuals: either younger people or scientists who have been laboring on a project in relative obscurity for a long time might do more to advance science itself.

Without in any way intending to be snarky, the point of such a prize is simply to honor people for their accomplishments. Not to highlight underrated work that may pay off in the future or young people with promise, but to give recognition for a superb career. There are other awards and grants to do those other things, and of course they are inherently less prestigious.

And honestly I can't pretend I know the people or even the work in the sciences more than about 50% of the time. For the general public this is one of the few ways scientists get hyped up in the press without an IPO or a rocket launch.
posted by mark k at 8:00 PM on October 4


It's even a little worse than just the fact that the physics prize once again went to a set of white men -- but one of them, Barry Barish, has shown problematic judgement on related issues in the past (as described here). It was worse than that article makes it sound -- his title slide featured an image with a very prominent blackface caricature and a half-dressed woman, and as I recall from conversations with people who were there it was on screen through the entire conference dinner...
posted by janewman at 9:25 PM on October 4 [1 favorite]


See also The Absurdity of the Nobel Prizes in Science.

I used to rub elbows with a couple of Nobel Laureates when I was a young student / worker at the Santa Fe Institute. They're normal people too. Only normal people who walk around with a halo around them, where everyone else knows so-and-so got the Nobel. There were a lot of egotistical scientists at SFI, smart people who knew how smart they were. But even among them, there were the Anointed Smartest.

The funniest were a couple of the scientists who had not yet received the Nobel they were certain they deserved. Every year around selection time people would start making unkind jokes behind their backs about how they were waiting by the phone all the time, giddy with anticipation like it was Christmas. The two I knew best have remained frustrated.

TBH I think the MacArthur is a much better model for rewarding geniuses. Find them while they are still ascending in their careers, when the extra money and recognition can help them succeed. The Nobel committee waits far too long.
posted by Nelson at 12:56 AM on October 5 [5 favorites]


A 2017 Nobel laureate says he left science because he ran out of money and was fed up with academia. Be sure to watch the video of the cranky grizzled hippie.
posted by Nelson at 7:53 AM on October 7 [1 favorite]


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