Boffey, Philip M. "Science Nobels: Do They Always Go to the Best?" New York Times, 18
October 1983, pp. C1, C2.
It is the Nobel season and it is not inappropriate that amid the fuss and the furor of celebrating
American Achievements, there should be some questions raised about the prizes themselves. "Do
the prizes always go to the best?" could be be followed by, "Have mistakes been made?" Could it
be in science that the good guy does not always win? Here is a Times' staffer describing some of
the stuff that has gone on in the past.
The references he uses include Zuckerman. He also uses Donald Fleming, described as an
historian of science at Harvard. How one decides to look at this is determining of what one is
going to find; ask a science loyalist and the answers are loyal.
Nobel severely limited science by his definition. There is no award in mathematics (because
Nobel hated the leading mathematician of his day) and none in astronomy, none in evolutionary
biology, agriculture, geophysics, meteorology, to say nothing of more recent arrivals like
computer science and ecology. Moreover, the prizes in Economics, Peace, and Literature are
frequently politicized. There are also other kinds of mistakes: Hewish got the prize while his
graduate student, Jocelyn Bell, did not; Macleod and Banting won in medicine when they should
not have; Fibiger won the prize in medicine in 1926 for work on cancer, which later turned out to
be mistaken; and, while Einstein did win a prize, it was not for his theory of relativity. This
author also complains that Freud did not win a prize. (That is, of course, a matter on which there
might be some disagreement.)
Zuckerman and Fleming agree that the awards may not be beneficial to the recipients. Winners
play at being laureates and forget to work. But even if, as Zuckerman suggests, the productivity
of the individual scientist seems to fade after a win, the competition for the prizes does stimulate
scientific research. The implication here is that the competition has its costs which are not borne
by the Institute.
It is here reported that the Swedes have tried to broaden the base of prizes by offering the less
endowed Crawford prize, which is worth only $50,000. This will be open in those areas not
covered by Nobel's will.