Scientists do science for its own sake, but, being human, also respond to external incentives. Typically, the external incentive they care most about is recognition. Prizes are a part of the landscape of incentives […] To improve matters we propose a paradigm shift in the prize business: prize-granting entities should begin by identifying a major development and then determine the key individuals who contributed to it. Ideally everyone identified in this fashion would share in the prize[…]
S. Sondhi and S. Kivelson, Time to fix science prizes, Nature Physics, 2017, 13,822

Oh yes, it’s one of those days again… just after the equinox, when seasons shift and nights grow longer, when mists and mellow fruitfulness take over. Harvest time, time of plenty, when the fruit of our hard work is, at last, plucked and savoured. Like sweet corn, the golden delicacy of late-summer Québec.

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But if we can all bite into a succulent corn cob, only for just a handful of us the reward will come in as solid gold, in the form of a medal.

It’s Nobel Prize week, again.

So here we are, back to fever pitch, all anxiously tweeting and wondering and, well, sometimes even betting (as the Simpsons famously did) on who will receive the ultimate scientific recognition and be crowned with the Nobel Laurel.

 

Last year, a friend of mine tries his hand, too, but he was not so successful…

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Nowadays, speculations tap into big data, thus making full use of h index and other devilish bibliometric tools. This is not my strongest suit and, for authoritative updates on the latest predictions, check for instance on Chemistryworld.

Ok, wait, maybe I’m wrong, maybe most of us chemists do not even care about the prizes and all the news hype…doubt arises and suggests me the really tricky question: should one care at all about Nobel Prizes? Should we worry about the Prize being given ‘yet again’ to a non-chemist? By the way, this reason for simmering discontent among chemists was wittily defused in this Angewandte Chemie editorial by -Nobel Laureate- Roald Hoffmann. He emphasises that, despite the media hype, “by recognizing excellence, the Nobel Prize evokes aspiration. Especially for young people”, adding that this prize can also be seen as a motivation for personal development, to aim higher and farther: “in our contemplation of prizes and contests […] we are reaching out for material and spiritual betterment in ourselves. The essential role of prizes may be a focusing of our own aspirations“.

I’ll come clean about it: honestly, I myself do not really know what to make of the Nobel prizes anymore. As a child, I used to feel deep admiration for the Laureates and dream of being among them one day, just as Hoffmann recalls doing as a teenager. Then, yes, there is the prestige and the fame that go along with the golden medal, and I would lie if I said that I am completely disinteresed in Nobel Prizes and fully immune to the fascination of the vintage glamour of its aristocratically anachronistic gala reception: the King, the notables, the white tie protocol, the splendour of the crystal chandeliers, the halls and the balls.
At the same time, my conviction that science is ultimately a collective endeavour makes me all too aware that the Laureates’ greatness resemble so much that of the great navigators of the Discovery Age. From the Chinese admiral Zheng He to Christopher Columbus and (Montréal oblige) Jacques Cartier, these undoubtedly outstanding, visionary, inspirational individuals would not have sailed anywhere without a crew (and someone providing them ships to do so…). Similarly, what would Nobel Laureates have done without technicians and other support staff? 1

My favourites among the Laureates are those who remain humble in victory and honest in glory, openly acknowledging the contribution of those around them. Good examples? Ben Feringa, who, in an interview to Chemistryworld, said:

I’m fairly privileged, like others in academia, to work with talented young men and women – undergraduates, PhDs, postdocs and coworkers. Over the years, several generations of students have passed through my labs and it’s a great privilege to have the brightest people around you every day. I don’t want to pick someone special out. We work together with many groups and each individual student contributed”

Or, for instance, take the Nobel Lecture by Aziz Sancar, in which (here I refer to the transcripts) Sancar, after saying “I have had the good fortune of having worked with outstanding students and postdocs over the course of my career who have conducted most of the experiments I described here“, goes on to list all lab members, collaborators and mentors.

Yet, will acknowledgements ever feature in the opening slide of the Nobel Lecture? That would be a momentous change (If this has already happened, please do let me know).

It’s clear from what I’ve written. It seems I’m coming down with a Stockholm Syndrome of sorts again: I can’t help liking the very thing I criticise…

Let’s tidy things up. There are several sides to this issue, which cannot be depicted as a simple love-hate affair.

Tales and their characters

In the first place, science needs its own stories, were it not just for outreach and communication. The public’s hunger for tales is a well-known fact. The key ingredients of storytelling are gripping plots, evocative descriptions touching the five senses, and unforgettable characters. Nobel winners – often larger-than-life figures – make for ideal protagonists (and the press is instrumental in this – even the reputable Chemistryworld did not resist the temptation to call 2016 Nobel winners ‘Supraheroes‘). In addition, the narrative of the discovery process, unravelling from an initial challenge to breakthrough and final success through toil, hardship, and a series of hurdles to overcome2, does work wonders because it matches a universal template for stories which is, arguably, hardwired in us since the most distant past3. It has fuelled our desire to listen to stories, from ancient myths to epic tales and Games of Thrones. In this respect, not only do Nobel Prize winners bring chemistry closer to the public as advocates of science, but also the special characters who make a timeless narrative machine tick faultlessy.

Yet, a conversation with a professor during a short visit at Coimbra made me think of outstanding chemists from another point of view. In a paper presented at the 10th International Conference on the History of Chemistry (Aveiro, 2015), Prof. Rodrigues pointed out that even great chemists are not as well-known by the lay public as one could expect, at least by comparing them to, for instance, famous scientists from other disciplines. He suggested that biographies of chemists could play an important role in bringing them closer to the public by getting under their skin, eventually unveiling what lies underneath the lab coat.  Chemists’ biographies are potentially powerful outreach tools which could be exploited much more effectively, Rodrigues argued, provided that they are well-written – that is, if they offer an objective depiction while avoiding a black-and-white stance which pits the the contributors to human progress against evil geniuses. After reading Rodrigues’ paper, I could not help wondering why chemists, even Nobel winners, easily tend to drop off the radar. Is it because chemistry is perhaps seen by the public as a somewhat ‘workmanlike’ science, done by skilled tinkerers (as Pierre Laszlo wrote), artisans, rather than by great geniuses? Does this stem once more from the ‘curse of invisibility’, plaguing what should be the central science, so “close[r] to the human scale” (in Hoffmann’s own words) that it eventually becomes too human, hence too material and lowly, to rise truly to fame in the public eye?

Winner takes all

Then, there’s the award itself. Our society, and all the more so the scientific community within it, shows a marked penchant for rankings, classification and the inevitable counterpart that goes with it: a pot-pourri of awards, prizes, badges, distinctions. The Nobel, the Prize par excellence, ties in perfectly with this rationale of evaluation and classification that seems to define our times, something that appears to be both an inevitable choice dictated by dynamics out of our control and a willing act of submission to and acceptance of a questionable logic of cut-throat competition. Winners thrive and shine, second-bests dive into oblivion (except for Mendeleev, who outshines 1906 Nobel winner Moissan, in a belated reversal of fortunes). Besides this, it is not at all surprising in that our global ‘Society of the Spectacle’, to use the famous definition introduced by Guy Debord, the media are quick off the mark to shine the limelight on the latest Nobel Prize, so as to satisfy the audiences’ insatiable appetite for winners, be they scientists or singers topping the charts. As long as you can tweet about it, everything goes.

Not that fame is the ultimate goal of most scientists…the article The not-so-noble past of the Nobel Prizes , appeared on The Conversation, reminds us that:

Ironically, receiving the prize that recognises a great accomplishment is often accompanied with a decline in scientific accomplishment. This is most likely due to the deluge of social demands placed upon the laureates, who are perceived not just as a great scientist but also a sage.

French biochemist André Lwoff, winner of the 1965 physiology or medicine prize, speaking on behalf of his colleagues, observed:

«We have gone from zero to the condition of movie stars. We have been submitted to what may be called an ordeal. We are not used to this sort of public life which has made it impossible for us to go on with our work…Our lives are completely upset…When you have organised your life for your work and then such a thing happens to you, you discover that you are faced with fantastic new responsibilities, new duties.» ”

The other side of the medal

Finally, I will not shy away from what are arguably the most controversial aspects: how does the Nobel Prize fit in with the era of the crisis of peer review, the push towards open access and science for all? Am I going so far as to advocating a worldwide referendum to choose the Nobel Prize? Not sure…in particular now that Le Monde Diplomatique warns us that we should beware of a referendum overdose, and yet I admit that would be a wonderful thought experiment. More simply, I am thinking about, for instance, the ideas for sweeping reforms of the Nobel Prize which were put forward in a Scientific American article: “The Nobel committees force a category error: they insist on awarding the prize to a few individuals, while in reality, the nature of the scientific enterprise has changed. Teams now perform the bulk of the highest-impact work“. Authoritative voices raise criticism, as pointed out in the Nature Physics editorial piece (cited at the beginning of this post) in which the authors suggest recognising the impact of developments in a field and then acknowledging the contribution of all key individuals, and not just three, as it is currently the case for the Nobel Prize. Assigning credit: this is a thorny issue, addressed in Nature News last year, and in the aforementioned The Conversation article, which focussed on the long-lasting neglect of women by the Nobel Committee.

New horizons

Time to wrap it up: what should we make of the Nobel Prize? “Does it affect our professional opinion of what is good chemistry? Hardly“, emphasises Hoffmann in his Angewandte Chemie editorial, suggesting that we should see the winners as inspirational figures. This reminds me again of the similarity between navigators and leading scientists, who, indeed, lead the way, opening up new research avenues. They, literally, “give the world new worlds”, to use an expression in Jardins de cristais, a book about chemistry and literature by the Coimbra chemistry professor that I mentioned before, Sérgio Rodrigues. In the Portuguese original, the expression reads “dar novos mundos ao mundo4, and refers to the key role of Portuguese sailors as pioneers on the sea routes opening up new horizons for the whole of Europe. The Portuguese seem to know it better, as reflected in their visual expression a leading lamp illuminates twice  (“candeia que vai à frente alumia duas vezes“). In an interview to Chemistryworld, a former member of the Nobel Committee tells us that one of the criteria for choosing the Nobel Prize winners is indeed that “The achievement should somehow open a door, or open our eyes. We will see things in a different way“. Exactly what great poetry does, remarks Rodrigues: “it shows and opens the way”. Nothing could express this better than the opening verses of a famous poem by William Blake:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour. 

As I wrote in one of the “propositions” (stellingen in Dutch) of my PhD thesis, a dozen or so statements that you have to be ready to uphold during the defence of your thesis, science is like chess and there are two ways of playing: one is to study all the possible sequences of moves, the other is to expand the chessboard. Though equally important for the advancement of science, only the latter can specifically be seen as the most important lasting legacy of outstanding scientists – or poets or philosophers (be they Nobel Prize winners or not). Broader horizons. New tricks up the chemist’s sleeve. A fresh outlook on molecules we have always supposed to know well. A deeper understanding of human nature.

This must be our own touchstone to scratch the surface and weigh the carats of the Nobel medals when, tomorrow, the Web and the press will be abuzz with the reactions to the news release. When the winners receive the ultimate accolade, and earn rightfully deserved universal acclaim; while their contribution to science is acknowledged in blogs, articles and news headlines, it won’t hurt to stop for a while and think about what lies underneath the gilding. Critical thinking is a scientist’s essential skill and skepticism, after all, has always been a defining attitude of chemists, as Boyle would agree.

The sheen and the medal: don’t let them blindfold you.

Gold is more than its glitter.

Footnotes

1. In this respect, the Royal Society of Chemistry rightly recognised the key role of a University of Nottingham technician, Neil Barnes, who was instrumental in performing the experiments that feature in the outreach collection Periodic Table of Videos starring chemistry professor and You Tube sensation Martyn Poliakoff.

2. Ben Feringa again: “During these first moments, I have to admit, I felt 30 years of emotion. Winning a Nobel prize isn’t something you do in a day, a week or a year. This was 30 years, starting as a young academic and slowly building up my group. We’ve had a lot of disappointments, but also breakout moments, and all of these passed by quickly in my mind: all the hard work, the emotions, the frustrations and the beautiful moments that you celebrate. I remembered how I was also silent, how I couldn’t speak, when I saw something moving with our molecular motors for the first time.

3. On this subject, the interested reader (oh that sounds so formal…) can refer to sources such as On the Origin of Stories, by Brian Boyd, and  The mind and its stories, by Patrick Holm Cogan.

4.Actually echoing a verse from the Portuguese epic poem Os Lusiades by Camões: “Novos mundos ao mundo irão mostrando”

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