04 October 2017

The problem with the Nobel prizes

Every year, when Nobel Prizes are awarded in physics, chemistry, and physiology or medicine, critics note that they are an absurd and anachronistic way of recognizing scientists for their work. Instead of honoring science, they distort its nature, rewrite its history, and overlook many of its important contributors...

The wider problem, beyond who should have received the prize and who should not, is that the Nobels reward individuals—three at most, for each of the scientific prizes, in any given year... The paper in which the LIGO team announced their discovery has an author list that runs to three pages. Another recent paper, which precisely estimated the mass of the elusive Higgs boson, has 5,154 authors.
More at The Atlantic.  If I am awarded a Nobel prize, I'll share the money with my coauthors and fellows and lab techs...


  1. I am a co-author on one of those papers, and very, very far from deserving of a Nobel prize, but a 30+ year career in the sciences has led me to the increasingly well tested theory that credit always goes to the wrong people, where the definition of "wrong" ranges from the conventional meaning through to "not enough of the right" people. Science, like so many human endeavours, suffers badly from the celebrity phenomenon wherein it is more important to be seen to be deserving than it is to be actually deserving. The Nobel prize has become one of the worst culprits.

  2. The problem is the assumption that everybody who did great science deserves a Nobel prize. If you would give a Nobel to every person who does great science, you'll end up handing multiple ones out every day and no one would care. The rest of the world does not have the "everybody wins" trophy culture that is so endemic in the US. A Nobel prize, and especially those in the sciences, are an incredibly random or unjust selection of the top of the leaders at the high end of a field. Being the best in your field is not enough. On top of that, you need to be lucky.

    However, for one week a year, the media will pay a tiny bit of attention to science, and nothing else achieves that. That is an important function of the Nobel prizes: to remind the public that great science is done.

    And to be honest, I find it a bigger problem that it's always old, mostly white men winning. And that from a committee is hyper-egalitarian Sweden. Very disappointing.


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