A No­bel col­lab­o­ra­tion

It’s time to ac­knowl­edge that sci­en­tific achieve­ments draw from more than in­di­vid­ual ge­nius

The Hindu - - EDITORIAL - Ja­cob Koshy

Al­most ev­ery year, the No­bel Prize is as much about who got left out.

This year’s No­bel Prize for Physics, awarded for the dis­cov­ery of grav­i­ta­tional waves, has pried open a dor­mant de­bate on whether the three in­di­vid­ual win­ners of the prize de­served it more than a thou­sand oth­ers who’ve been as­so­ci­ated with build­ing the Laser-In­ter­fer­om­e­ter Grav­i­ta­tional Wave Ob­ser­va­tory (LIGO), an engi­neer­ing marvel, that picked up a chirp from the grav­i­ta­tional waves of a bil­lion-year-old cos­mic cat­a­clysm. Pre­vi­ously too, the 2008 No­bel Chem­istry Prize for the dis­cov­ery of the green flu­o­res­cent pro­tein, a stan­dard tool that is used as a bi­o­log­i­cal marker, went to three per­sons and omit­ted Dou­glas Prasher, who first cloned it and sug­gested its use as a marker.

The orig­i­nal man­date

That great achieve­ments, wor­thy of a No­bel Prize, sprung from Euro­pean men due to their in­di­vid­ual grit and ge­nius was an im­plicit as­sump­tion of late 19th cen­tury Europe. In his will, ex­plain­ing the de­tails of the prize, Al­fred No­bel said that the money was to be split in five and in each case a “per­son” who made the most im­por­tant con­tri­bu­tions to physics, chem­istry, medicine, lit­er­a­ture and peace. Though catholic in scope, he also pre­sumed that these lu­mi­nar­ies would be male: “It is my ex­press wish that in award­ing the prizes no con­sid­er­a­tion what­ever shall be given to the na­tion­al­ity of the can­di­dates, but that the most wor­thy shall re­ceive the prize, whether he (em­pha­sis mine) be a Scan­di­na­vian or not.”

In the course of its evo­lu­tion, how­ever, the No­bel Prize has turned out to be much more than fet­ing prize race­horses and it was a sin­gle phrase in Al­fred No­bel’s will — that it was to be a re­ward for those who “… dur­ing the pre­ced­ing year, shall have con­ferred the great­est ben­e­fit to mankind” — that ap­pears to have el­e­vated it.

To stay true to this larger prin­ci­ple, the spe­cial­ist com­mit­tees that de­cide the prizes and the gov­ern­ing board have amended the prize-dis­pens­ing rules in ways that have made it far more en­com­pass­ing and that prob­a­bly would have de­fied No­bel’s imag­i­na­tion.

These changes have meant that women have bagged ev­ery one of the six prizes (in­clud­ing Eco­nomics) and win­ners have spanned ev­ery habitable con­ti­nent. It is rou­tine for the prize to have mul­ti­ple re­cip­i­ents and some­times an en­tire con­glom­er­a­tion of coun­tries — the Euro­pean Union has been con­ferred the prize for peace. And last year, it re-de­fined the com­mon-sense def­i­ni­tion of lit­er­a­ture to ac­com­mo­date Bob Dy­lan.

Even No­bel’s word­ing, that the prize be given for work in the ‘pre­ced­ing year’, is only rarely ad­hered to. The prize has recog­nised sci­en­tists for work from as many as four decades ago and mixed it up with ac­knowl­edg­ing cer­tain dis­cov­er­ies — as in the case of LIGO — within two years. It isn’t the case, there­fore, that the prize foun­da­tion is ob­sessed with in­ter­pret­ing No­bel’s in­struc­tions ver­ba­tim and it has al­ways in­cre­men­tally moved with the times.

The last bar­rier

The one bar­rier that hasn’t been bro­ken is ac­cept­ing that science — that’s of the “great­est ben­e­fit to mankind” — is now a col­lec­tive en­ter­prise. The Ein­stein-like im­age of the ec­cen­tric, icon­o­clas­tic sci­en­tist dis­lodg­ing par­a­digms by the power of thought alone is far from the re­al­ity of the con­ven­tional science Lau­re­ates. To­day’s sci­en­tific break­throughs emerge from cre­ative minds be­cause they have se­cure jobs in well-funded uni­ver­si­ties, are able to form global net­works, and in­no­va­tively tap funds from all over the world to build enor­mous de­vices that are usu­ally the only ones of their kind in the world.

It’s of­ten said that a key im­ped­i­ment to al­low­ing groups win the prize is that the rules ex­plic­itly bar the prize from be­ing split more than three ways. That’s in­con­gru­ous be­cause it is stated that “…Each prize-award­ing body shall be com­pe­tent to de­cide whether the prize it is en­ti­tled to award may be con­ferred upon an in­sti­tu­tion or as­so­ci­a­tion.” While the com­mit­tees that man­age the peace prize have seized on this lee­way, the sciences have so far hes­i­tated. An­other well-known re­stric­tion — that the prizes not be awarded posthu­mously — was also a mod­i­fi­ca­tion that came due to an amend­ment in 1974. Erik Axel Karlfeldt won the 1931 No­bel Prize in Lit­er­a­ture six months af­ter his death and Dag Ham­marskjöld died a month be­fore he was named win­ner of the 1961 Peace Prize but the com­mit­tees later felt that it wasn’t in the spirit of the prizes to be awarded to the de­ceased. Thus, it isn’t par­tic­u­larly hard for the No­bel com­mit­tees to al­low the prize to be shared by as­so­ci­a­tions.

While there may be prizes that give away more money than the No­bel, none can equal it in pres­tige. That’s be­cause of its long his­tory and abil­ity to en­sure that ex­cel­lence in hu­man in­tel­lec­tual en­deav­our is duly hon­oured. Go­ing ahead, the fu­ture of Big Science projects in­creas­ingly lies in global par­tic­i­pa­tion, and the lat­ter is un­likely to be suf­fi­ciently in­cen­tivised un­til it gets a fair share of the recog­ni­tion.

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