How noble are the motives behind awarding of the Nobel Prize

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THE dance around the golden Nobel medallion began over a 100 years ago, and is still going strong. As icon, myth and ritual, the Nobel Prize is well secured. But what do we actually know about the Nobel Prize?
Shrouded in secrecy and legend, the Nobel Prize first became an object for serious scholarly study after 1976, when the Nobel Foundation opened its archives. Subsequent research by historians of science leaves little doubt: the Nobel medallion is etched with human frailties.

Although many observers accept a degree of subjectivity in the literature and peace prizes, the science prizes have long been seen as an objective measure of excellence. But, from the start, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which awards the physics and chemistry prizes, and the Caroline Institute, which awards those for medicine/physiology, have based their decisions on the recommendations of their respective committees. And the members’ own understanding of science has been critical in determining outcomes.

From the beginning, while committee members tried to be dispassionate, their own judgment, predilections and interests necessarily entered into their work, and some championed their own agendas, whether openly or cunningly.

Winning a prize has never been an automatic process, a reward that comes for having attained a magical level of achievement. Designated nominators rarely provided committees with a clear consensus, and the committees often ignored the rare mandates when a single strongly nominated candidate did appear, such as Albert Einstein for his work on relativity theory. Academy physicists had no intention of recognising this achievement “even if the whole world demands it”. The prize is a Swedish prerogative.

Moreover, a simple change in the composition of the committee could decide a candidate’s fate. Not until committee strongman C. W. Oseen died in 1944 could the theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli – one of the giants of quantum mechanics – receive a prize. Conversely, the Academy of Sciences sometimes rebelled against its committees. Har

bouring a grudge, one chem-ist rallied the Academy to block the committee’s recommendation for the Russian Dmitry Mendeleyev, who created the periodic table.

Even when all involved tried to rise above pettiness and partiality, selecting winners was always difficult – and remains so. Committee members occasionally confessed privately that often several candidates equally deserved a prize. Unambiguous, impartial criteria for selecting a winner were not at hand – and never will be.

So why do people venerate the Nobel Prize? There is no easy answer.

Is science or society well served by a fixation on prizes and on nurturing a culture of extreme competition?

Perhaps, once the mystery of the Nobel Prize is reduced, we might reflect on what is truly significant in science. The soul and heritage of science going back several centuries is far richer than the quest for prizes.

read more | digg story

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