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Why do Nobel Prizes reign supreme?

®© The Nobel Foundation
In this week's podcast we talk to author and science historian Robert Marc Freedman*, one of the foremost authorities on the science Nobel Prizes awarded prior to 1950 (specifically, Friedman studied the members of the award committee and tried to understand how the award winners were selected). We also talk briefly with Martin Perl**, co-winner of the 1995 Nobel Prize in physics for his discovery of the tau lepton.

I got in touch with Dr. Friedman with what I thought was a simple question: why are the Nobel Prizes such a big deal? There is quite simply no other science prize that comes close. But what did the Nobels do to earn this status?

It turns out, that's not an easy question to answer. And Dr. Friedman says he doesn't know of anyone who has really tried to parse it. Today on the podcast we cover some of the likely reasons why the cult of the Nobel has grown to what it is today, including the way it benefits local agendas, and our own will to believe.

There is a common answer to the question of why the Nobel Prize is the foremost science prize in the world: it has a longer history than any other prize, and it has consistently awarded worthy scientists whose work represents the course of modern science.

Unfortunately, these points don't really hold water.

The Nobel Prize was actually a big deal from the moment it was introduced to the world. Less than a decade before, the Olympics had been reinvented into their present form. The world was interested in seeing all the nations compete, on a level playing field, to demonstrate their level of "fitness." Sort of a social Darwinistic view of society.

So Nobel Prize winners were immediately treated as national heroes, and in a trend that continued on into the 1940's, they were given responsibilities that extended beyond science. So in a way, we've always honored the Nobel Prize winners as if they were more than just great scientists.

Now, this is not to imply that the people who have won Nobel Prizes are not exceptional scientists. They are. But the Nobel Prize gives the impression that they are the most exceptional scientists; in a league above all the rest. It gives the impression that those who do not have prizes are not of the same caliber. And this simply isn't true. (This is putting aside the instances where people were denied a Nobel Prize for what some suspect were more insidious reasons, such as Nikolai Tesla and Lisa Meitner.)

So while some are calling for the Nobel Prize to change its rules and honor collaborations, or to include other science disciplines, I think perhaps the bigger problem is with the Nobel is just how big it has become. The spotlight we shine on the Nobel Prize is so bright that it leaves other, equally great scientists in shadow. We the public are as much to blame as anyone for how highly the prizes are honored; maybe it's time we turn down the spotlight a bit.

*Dr. Friedman is a professor of history of science at University of Oslo and an associate research scholar at Johns Hopkins University, where he earned his PhD. He is the author of the book The Politics of Excellence: Behind the Nobel Prize in Science.
**Dr. Perl is a Professor Emeritus at the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Stanford University.


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