The dark side of No­bel prizewin­ning re­search is in­fre­quently ac­knowl­edged

The China Post - - ARTS - BY HUGUES HONORE

Think of the No­bel prizes and you think of ground­break­ing re­search bet­ter­ing mankind, but the awards have also hon­ored some quite un­hu­man­i­tar­ian in­ven­tions such as chem­i­cal weapons, DDT and lobotomies.

Nu­mer­ous No­bel prize con­tro­ver­sies have erupted over the years: au­thors who were over­looked, sci­en­tists who claimed their dis­cov­ery came first, or peace prizes that di­vided public opin­ion.

But some of the science prizes ap­pear in hind­sight to be em­bar­rass­ing choices by the com­mit­tees.

When the 2013 No­bel Peace Prize went to the Or­ga­ni­za­tion for the Pro­hi­bi­tion of Chem­i­cal Weapons, it was per­haps a way of mak­ing up for the No­bel “war prize” it awarded to Ger­man chemist Fritz Haber in 1918.

Haber was hon­ored with the chem­istry prize for his work on the syn­the­sis of am­mo­nia, which was cru­cial for de­vel­op­ing fer­til­iz­ers for food pro­duc­tion.

But Haber, known as the “fa­ther of chem­i­cal war­fare,” also de­vel­oped poi­sonous gases used in trench war­fare in World War I at the Bat­tle of Ypres which he su­per­vised him­self.

Af­ter Ger­many’s de­feat in the war, “he didn’t ex­pect to win a prize. He was more afraid of a court mar­tial,” Swedish chemist Inger Ing­man­son, who wrote a book about Haber’s prize, told AFP.

“Some saw it as a Ger­manophile prize. There were peo­ple who had wanted Swe­den to join the war along­side Ger­many.”

The prize re­mains one of the most con­tested No­bels ever awarded — the jury had to be aware of Haber’s role in, and the ef­fects of, chlo­rine gas be­ing used in the trenches. But he had also brought the world rev­o­lu­tion­ary fer­til­iz­ers.

French chemist Vic­tor Grig­nard, who also de­vel­oped poi­sonous gases, won a No­bel prize too, but that was in 1912, be­fore the out­break of World War I and be­fore their uses in war­fare.

Odd Tim­ing

The 1918 con­tro­versy might have en­cour­aged the Stock­holm jury to think care­fully about the lau­re­ates they choose af­ter a con­flict.

Yet in Novem­ber 1945, just three months af­ter atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Na­gasaki, the No­bel chem­istry prize hon­ored the dis­cov­ery of nu­clear fis­sion.

The lau­re­ate was another Ger­man, Otto Hahn, whose 1938 dis­cov­ery was cru­cial to the de­vel­op­ment of atomic bombs.

How­ever, Hahn never worked on the mil­i­tary ap­pli­ca­tions of his dis­cov­ery and upon learn­ing, while in cap­tiv­ity as a pris­oner-of-war in Eng­land, that a nu­clear bomb had been dropped, he told his fel­low cap­tives: “I am thank­ful we (Ger­many) didn’t suc­ceed” in build­ing the bomb.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences’ choice is be­wil­der­ing, es­pe­cially given its ap­par­ent ur­gency right af­ter the dam­ages just wreaked by the bombs.

No­bel ar­chives re­veal that the Academy had wanted to honor Hahn al­ready in 1940. As of 1944, he was con­sid­ered by his peers as a “se­cret No­bel lau­re­ate” who just needed to wait un­til the end of the war to col­lect his prize.a

Ac­cord­ing to a 1995 ar­ti­cle in the sci­en­tific jour­nal Na­ture, Hahn’s nom­i­na­tion was sup­ported by aca­demics who saw him — the only can­di­date nom­i­nated for the No­bel Chem­istry Prize in 1944 — as a lau­re­ate wor­thy of the science prize re­gard­less of po­lit­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions. Other jury mem­bers would have pre­ferred to wait to find out more about the U.S.’ top- se­cret war-time re­search on the bomb, but they were in the mi­nor­ity.

Hahn ul­ti­mately won the 1944 prize, though it was only awarded to him af­ter the end of the war in 1945.

Scorned Lau­re­ates

Hahn’s dis­cov­ery as such was not so con­tro­ver­sial, only the later ap­pli­ca­tion of it.

The same can­not be said for some other No­bel re­search, in­clud­ing that of Por­tuguese neu­rol­o­gist Egas Moniz, who won the 1949 No­bel Medicine Prize “for his dis­cov­ery of the ther­a­peu­tic value of leu­co­tomy in cer­tain psy­choses.”

To­day the brain surgery pro­ce­dure is known as a lo­bot­omy and is only used in rare cir­cum­stances. The No­bel Foun­da­tion’s web­site notes soberly that the surgery was “con­tro­ver­sial.”

Bengt Jans­son, a psy­chi­a­trist and for­mer mem­ber of the medicine prize se­lec­tion com­mit­tee, wrote: “I see no rea­son for in­dig­na­tion at what was done in the 1940s as at that time there were no other al­ter­na­tives!”

Chem­i­cal treat­ments for men­tal ill­nesses were later de­vel­oped.

And then there are the lau­re­ates blasted by en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists.

One year be­fore Moniz, the medicine prize jury hon­ored Swiss sci­en­tist Paul Mueller for his dis­cov­ery that DDT could be used to kill in­sects that spread malaria.

DDT was later banned world­wide, af­ter it was dis­cov­ered to pose a threat to hu­mans and wildlife.

Nonethe­less, pes­ti­cides went on to play a role in another No­bel.

In 1970, U.S. bi­ol­o­gist Nor­man Bor­laug won the No­bel Peace Prize for in­tro­duc­ing mod­ern agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion tech­niques to Mexico, Pak­istan and In­dia, in­clud­ing ge­netic cross­breed­ing.

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