The Nobel Prizes

A group of scientists and engineers from the life sciences has written a letter to The New Scientist where the call for the "creation of Nobel Prizes for the Global Environment and Public Health", and for "an expansion of, or an addition to, the Prize for Physiology and Medicine to recognise contributions from across the life sciences".

I think this is not a good idea and I would urge the Nobel Committees not to indulge to this request to tamper with the regulations and traditions on which the Nobel Prizes are based. Until today, they have not yielded to previous calls for such actions. There was one exception, the Nobel Prize for Economics, and, I am sorry to say, this was a mistake, which cannot be revoked anymore.

Apparently, the signatories deem that anyone who has done something good for humanity should qualify for some Nobel Prize or other. However, even within the fields of Physics, Chemistry or Medicine, it does not work that way. With the exception of the Prizes for Peace and Literature, the Nobel Prizes have always been restricted for people who have made some significant discovery, or who have made pivotal contributions to enable some such discovery; this is not quite the same as doing something good for humanity.

In his will, Alfred Nobel has decided that scientists who made new discoveries should receive his support, and what humanity needs is peace, so those who contribute to that most, also qualify for his support. It is this formula on which the glamorous reputation of the Nobel Prizes is based.

As times changed, the Nobel Committees did have the good taste to broaden their criteria a bit. For instance, several important discoveries in astronomy have been rewarded with the Physics Prize, and discoveries in biology can qualify for the Medicine Prize. The signatories complain that neurobiology is not receiving the attention that this research area deserves, but it is obvious to me that significant discoveries in this field do qualify for the Medicine Prize.

The signatories of the New Scientist letter opine that, if the World Health Organisation should succeed in eradicating malaria, they should quilify for a Nobel Prize that would have to be different from the Peace Prize. In various ways, this would not fit with the principles on which the Nobel Prizes are based. Of course, malaria is a disease, and the first thing one would think of is to devote the Medicine Nobel Prize for such an achievement. I could well imagine that eradicating malaria will be impossible without essential new discoveries of a medical nature, and new ways to eradicate dangerous pests - either mosquitos or the parasites inside mosquitos in this case - would certainly qualify as medical discoveries, but they would have to be done by individuals, of whom only one, two, or at most three can be selected.

Indeed, giving the Nobel Prize to an institution would not be in line with the Nobel ideology. I don't think that the Nobel Committees should give in to the pressure to grant the Nobel prize to institutions instead of individuals, as once they did for the Peace Prize. Can all members of Doctors without Borders now call themselves nobel Laureates? If not, can Jimmy Carter and Al Gore call themselves Nobel Laureates?

Most of all, I would detest the idea of establishing an entire new category of Nobel Prizes just because one has one candidate in mind.

Why should new categories of Nobel Prizes be instituted? There are many other Prizes involving comparable amounts of money, which are surrounded with a similar amount of spectacle and glory. If they nevertheless did not reach the standing of the Nobel Prizes it can only mean that they have not, or not yet, developed the same historical significance. Why try to reap the fame of today's Nobel Prizes for other purposes? The Nobel Prizes have earned their public respect because of their lists of laureates in the past, not because of the name Nobel. So, if anyone wishes to establish a new Prize, be brave and honest, give the Prize its own name, and wait until its list of laureates brings about the same prestige as Nobel's. Look for instance at the mathematicians. Since there is no Nobel Prize in mathematics, they instituted the Fields Medal, and later, the Abel Prize. These are quickly becoming illustrious world wide, and are generally referred to as the Nobel Prizes of Mathematics. This is the royal road, and this is the example the Life sciences should follow, or try to follow, in a similar way. We will look on to see what happens.

Nobel Prizes for "Global Environment and Public Health" and for "Life Sciences" sound like a whim of fashion, and I am sure that, if this will be adopted, many more will follow, until we end up with the Nobel Prize for Stamp Collecting. I would strongly oppose.

Gerard 't Hooft
October 2009