A Nobel collaboration

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Almost every year, the Nobel Prize is as much about who got left out.

This year’s Nobel Prize for Physics, awarded for the discovery of gravitational waves, has pried open a dormant debate on whether the three individual winners of the prize deserved it more than a thousand others who’ve been associated with building the Laser-Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO), an engineering marvel, that picked up a chirp from the gravitational waves of a billion-year-old cosmic cataclysm. Previously too, the 2008 Nobel Chemistry Prize for the discovery of the green fluorescent protein, a standard tool that is used as a biological marker, went to three persons and omitted Douglas Prasher, who first cloned it and suggested its use as a marker.

That great achievements, worthy of a Nobel Prize, sprung from European men due to their individual grit and genius was an implicit assumption of late 19th century Europe. In his will, explaining the details of the prize, Alfred Nobel said that the money was to be split in five and in each case a “person” who made the most important contributions to physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and peace. Though catholic in scope, he also presumed that these luminaries would be male: “It is my express wish that in awarding the prizes no consideration whatever shall be given to the nationality of the candidates, but that the most worthy shall receive the prize, whether he (emphasis mine) be a Scandinavian or not.”

In the course of its evolution, however, the Nobel Prize has turned out to be much more than feting prize racehorses and it was a single phrase in Alfred Nobel’s will – that it was to be a reward for those who “… during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind” – that appears to have elevated it.

To stay true to this larger principle, the specialist committees that decide the prizes and the governing board have amended the prize-dispensing rules in ways that have made it far more encompassing and that probably would have defied Nobel’s imagination.

These changes have meant that women have bagged every one of the six prizes (including Economics) and winners have spanned every habitable continent. It is routine for the prize to have multiple recipients and sometimes an entire conglomeration of countries – the European Union has been conferred the prize for peace. And last year, it re-defined the common-sense definition of literature to accommodate Bob Dylan.

Even Nobel’s wording, that the prize be given for work in the ‘preceding year’, is only rarely adhered to. The prize has recognised scientists for work from as many as four decades ago and mixed it up with acknowledging certain discoveries – as in the case of LIGO – within two years. It isn’t the case, therefore, that the prize foundation is obsessed with interpreting Nobel’s instructions verbatim and it has always incrementally moved with the times.

The one barrier that hasn’t been broken is accepting that science – that’s of the “greatest benefit to mankind” – is now a collective enterprise. The Einstein-like image of the eccentric, iconoclastic scientist dislodging paradigms by the power of thought alone is far from the reality of the conventional science Laureates. Today’s scientific breakthroughs emerge from creative minds because they have secure jobs in well-funded universities, are able to form global networks, and innovatively tap funds from all over the world to build enormous devices that are usually the only ones of their kind in the world.

It’s often said that a key impediment to allowing groups win the prize is that the rules explicitly bar the prize from being split more than three ways. That’s incongruous because it is stated that “…Each prize-awarding body shall be competent to decide whether the prize it is entitled to award may be conferred upon an institution or association.” While the committees that manage the peace prize have seized on this leeway, the sciences have so far hesitated. Another well-known restriction – that the prizes not be awarded posthumously – was also a modification that came due to an amendment in 1974. Erik Axel Karlfeldt won the 1931 Nobel Prize in Literature six months after his death and Dag Hammarskjöld died a month before he was named winner of the 1961 Peace Prize but the committees later felt that it wasn’t in the spirit of the prizes to be awarded to the deceased. Thus, it isn’t particularly hard for the Nobel committees to allow the prize to be shared by associations.

While there may be prizes that give away more money than the Nobel, none can equal it in prestige. That’s because of its long history and ability to ensure that excellence in human intellectual endeavour is duly honoured. Going ahead, the future of Big Science projects increasingly lies in global participation, and the latter is unlikely to be sufficiently incentivised until it gets a fair share of the recognition.