As you’re probably aware (unless you’ve been living under a rock), the Nobel Prize announcements were made last week, with the Prize in Economic Sciences being revealed tomorrow. Of course, it seems we can’t make it through Nobel Week without some amount of controversy, and this year was no exception. Please note that given the inflammatory nature of some comments, respondents only agreed to be quoted anonymously. Also be sure to check out the fine coverage by other bloggers by clicking through the links here.
Bob O’H of This Scientific Life provides excellent synopses of the dissension created by the first two Prize announcements. Confidence in the Committees’ decisions was shaken from the start, as the Nobel Prize in Molecular Biology was awarded to Robert Edwards for a medical breakthrough, in vitro fertilization.
The controversy continued on Tuesday as the Nobel Prize in Physics recognized chemistry, for the isolation and characterization of graphene. Adding to spectators’ dismay over the prize, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov isolated graphene only 6 years ago during their ‘Friday evening experiments’ using pencil lead and ordinary sticky tape. “It’s the bloody Nobel Prize, not MacGyver,” one anonymous scientist proclaimed. “What’s the point of all the late nights in the lab and the millions in grant monies spent, if it doesn’t buy you a medal?” Some felt that it was unfair that Geim should receive a second high profile award, after being honored with an Ig Nobel prize for levitating frogs a mere 10 years ago. In the words of one spectator, “The committee has set a dreadful precedent.” Others have expressed concern about one of Geim’s previous co-authors, H. A. M. S. ter Tisha. One physicist commented, “There’s something about his beady little eyes that unsettles me. I wouldn’t trust Tisha further than I could throw him. Admittedly, I might be able to toss him quite far given his rather small stature… Well, anyway, if I don’t trust one co-author, it casts a shadow on the other.”
After two questionable Prizes, many hoped the ruckus would end there, but they were doomed for disappointment as the Prize in Biochemistry also went to chemistry, in this case Richard Heck, Ei-Ichi Negishi, and Akira Suzuki for their work on palladium-catalyzed carbon cross couplings. “Sure, the title read Prize in Chemistry, but everyone knows that they mean Chemistry in Biology,” responded one professor of chemical biological chemistry and biochemistry. “I don’t know what the Committee was thinking, awarding it to organic synthetic chemists.” Casting a further pall over the Prize in Chemistry was the revelation that Lisa Simpson’s prediction for the Prize—Kenkichi Sonogashiri who also developed a palladium-catalyzed coupling reaction–fell disturbingly close to reality. This has led to claims that Fox Broadcasting Corporation might have unduly influenced this year’s award. One analyst remarked, “Of course, Lisa’s pick and the Committee’s selection were not identical. That would be too obvious. However, the same class of reactions were chosen by both. Coincidence? I think not. I cannot imagine what hidden agenda Fox and the writers of the show are trying to push, but I think we should assume it’s not good.”
With all the hostility surrounding this year’s prizes, the Committees may indeed fare better next year by adopting the reality show selection model, as reported by Jonathan Eisen. At the very least, they should get higher TV ratings and might even bring in enough advertising revenue to swell the size of the prize.