A video is making the rounds on the internet this week, caught on one of those smart doorbell cameras. It’s 2am and a man is anxiously trying to wake his neighbor. Does he need help? Is there an emergency? Is the man’s house on fire or is there some kind of threat in the area? No, the man, Robert Wilson, is trying to wake his across-the-street neighbor to tell him that they’ve just won the Nobel prize. My name’s…
“A good reputation is more valuable than money.” -Publilius Syrus, a Syrian living in Rome at the time of the time BC/AD change-over. We have no way of knowing if Alfred Nobel ever read Publilius, but he definitely had reputation on his mind. The Swedish chemist, engineer, and industrialist found a novel way to combine good ol’ gunpowder with the exciting new discovery of nitroglycerine to form a truly earth-shaking invention – dynamite. It was a game-changer for industries like mining and it killed people like it was nobody’s business, both intentionally and through many, *many factory explosions. Nobel got richer with each improvement on dynamite. Then, his brother Ludvig died. A French newspaper ran an obit…for Alfred, having gotten their lines crossed somewhere along the way. Le marchand de la mort est mort, it read, The merchant of death is dead. Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday. That’s gotta sting. Nobel had no children and a sudden intense concern about his legacy. So he decided to put some of the money he’d made into the service of repairing his name with a real long-term strategy.
In his 1895 will, drafted the year before he died, Nobel instructed that most of his fortune — the equivalent of $250mil today– be set aside to create and award five annual prizes “to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” Provided you benefit mankind by way of Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature and the problematically vague, more on that later, Peace. Wait a sec, say those of you with better recall than me, where’s the Nobel prize for Economics. There wasn’t one. Apart from the one there would. The Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel was created by Sweden’s central bank in 1968. What about mathematics? The popular apocrypha is that Nobel lost the woman he loved to a mathematician. There’s no proof for that, sadly, and while no one knows for sure, it could be as simple as Nobel wasn’t really a math guy. Feel you there.
Winners are announced in October and November, the culmination of a year’s work. More than 6,000 people, like Nobel laureates, aka past winners, scholars in various fields and officials from various universities, are invited to nominate candidates, about 1,000 for each prize, which usually results in between 100 and 250 people. It’s not just names in a hat, you have to write a detailed proposal in favor of your nominee, and no, no matter how much you want to, no matter how cleverly you think you can get away with it, you can’t nominate yourself. Also, you mustn be alive. Nobel prizes aren’t awarded posthumously, at least not anymore. A few were, but then it was decided in the 1970’s to not be their bag anymore. There has been one notable exception: in 2011, Canadian immunologist Ralph Steinman received the Nobel for Physiology or Medicine, but he died between being nominated and his prize being announced. According to Steinman’s daughter, her father had actually joked about the Nobel prize shortly before he died. “They don’t give it to you if you have passed away,” he said. “I got to hold out for that.” He didn’t quite make it, but they gave him the prize anyway. Steinman must have had a sixth sense for convoluted awards schemes, because non-winning nominees are kept secret for 50 years, in part to prevent a Susan Lucci situation. For those who don’t recognize the name, Susan Lucci is a soap opera actress who was nominated for a daytime Emmy award 19 years in a row before she won. I always suspected she got the nom as a running gag after a while. The Nobel committee keeps the also-rans under their collective hat so people don’t include previous nominations as an argument for the prize. If nothing else, it means you can claim you were nominated for a Nobel prize and no one can prove otherwise. Work it into your next pick-up line, you know, when we can go out in public and socialize with strangers again.
The first prizes were awarded on December 10, 1901, on the fifth anniversary of Nobel’s death. It wasn’t that it took the committee five years to figure out what they were doing. Alfred Nobel’s extended family contested his will –he was worth a quarter-billion after all– plus the awards committee Nobel had selected refused to carry out his wishes. Surely things smoothed out once they got it up and running. Au contraire. It wouldn’t make much of an episode if there weren’t scandals, follies, WTFs, and palate cleanser of amazing science. Since 1901, there have been 49 years when the Nobel Prizes were not awarded. Most of them during the World Wars, stands to reason, but most of the skipped years were just because nobody was good enough to get one. The statutes of the Nobel Foundation say, “If none of the works under consideration is found to be of the importance indicated in the first paragraph, the prize money shall be reserved until the following year. If, even then, the prize cannot be awarded, the amount shall be added to the Foundation’s restricted funds.” Too bad the individual prizes don’t keep growing like the lottery when no one wins for a few weeks. There’s money? Hell yeah there’s money. In addition to the amazing prestige of the medal itself, winners receive a monetary prize of 10 million Swedish krona or $1.1mil or 874GBP.
You might be surprised by who gets one and who doesn’t, like Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev, was really into organization, specifically organizing the elements of our universe by their atomic weights into a little thing called the periodic table and in doing so revealing patterns in their properties that allowed him to make astute deductions about the nature of matter, and was even able to predict the properties of as-yet undiscovered elements. He didn’t get one. Then there are folks like Portuguese neurologist António Egas Moniz who received the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 19949 for his development of the prefrontal lobotomy, a procedure that, at its best, involved blindly slicing through brain tissue with a sharp implement, such as a literal ice pick, to supposedly treat the mentally ill, depressed or learning disabled people. It was also widely used on people with behavioral issue and women with, you know, opinions. Many were left in a permanent vegetative state and the procedure is now not only not used, it’s considered unethical. At the time, Moniz claimed those setbacks were a fair price to pay. Not everyone agreed, like the former patient who shot him in 1939. A lot of lives were ruined as a direct result of his work, including Rosemary Kennedy, sister of president John, whose father had her lobotomized for being incorrigible and sexually active.
Danish scientist Johannes Fibiger won the 1926 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering a cancer-causing parasite, what the Nobel committee called “the greatest contribution to experimental medicine in our generation.” Fibiger studied wild rats with warts he believed was a form of cancer caused by parasitic worms. One tiny oversight. And by one, I mean several, and by tiny, I mean dramatic and critical. While it’s true that some infections, like HPV, can lead to cancer, the rats’ disease wasn’t parasitic in origin. And it wasn’t cancer. It was a Vitamin A deficiency. I’m sure the fact that Fibiger had friends on the Nobel committee was just a coincidence.
The most questionable inclusions come from the most arbitrary prize of all, the Nobel peace prize, the most nebulous, influenceable and detached from the reality the rest of us are living in. Nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize are supposed to be for those who have not just dedicated themselves to their cause, but made personal sacrifices for the greater good, often risking their reputations and sometimes even their safety to bring “fraternity between nations” and peace to the world. How about one the biggest names in non-violent resistance in history, Mahatma Gandhi. He was nominated, but didn’t win…five times, 1937, 1938, 1939, 1947 and just before he was assassinated in January 1948. At least the Norwegian Nobel Committee decided to make no award that year on the grounds that “there was no suitable living candidate”.
More stunning than that obvious omission are the people who *have been nominated. Like Vladimir Putin. Yeah, the poster child for modern-day invasions and spy-killing was nominated by the International Academy of Spiritual Unity and Cooperation of Peoples of the World to recognize his efforts in using non-military action to get the Syrian government to surrender its chemical weapons…after he had invaded Ukraine. Marxist-Leninist Socialist leader Fidel Castro got a Nobel Peace Prize nomination in 2001, courtesy of a Norwegian PM, with the logic, and this is a quote, “What do you prefer? The right to vote, or easy access to schools, health care, housing and food, as in the case in Cuba.” As a wise man once said, [clip] You’re not wrong, you’re just an asshole. Phenomenal disappear-er of people, Soviet premier Josef Stalin was nominated twice: in 1945 and 1948. Apparently it was for his efforts in ending World War II, but other people on the committee must have remembered things like the siege of Berlin that killed 65,000 people, the execution of over 25,000 Polish POWs, orchestrating a political campaign later referred to as “The Great Terror,” to hit a few of the highlights. The same year Italian Fascist Dictator Benito Mussolini was invading Ethiopia and placing three quarters of Italian businesses under state control, he was nominated for the 1935 Nobel Peace Prize. He received not one letter of recommendation, but two, thought curiously, those letters have gone missing from the Nobel Institute archives. Nothing suspicious there. Mussolini was not shortlisted, but the committee couldn’t agree on a winner, so there was no prize that year. Sono mortificato, il Duce. So, we got Stalin and Moussilini; can we get the hat trick? Yup, Adolph Hitler was nominated for a Nobel peace prize in 1939. Swedish MP E.G.C. Brandt made the nomination, but claimed it was more as a satiric criticism of Swedish politics at the time and a response to other parliamentarians nominating British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlin, whose policies of appeasement, rather than preventing war with Germany, made war inevitable. Hitler wasn’t a fan of the Nobel prize, especially after the 1935 peace prized was given to a journalist and vocal critic of his. Hitler barred all Germans from accepting a Nobel Prize and instead created the German National Prize for Art and Science. Three Germans won in 1938-39 for chemistry and medicine, but were forced to decline the award. After the war, they were able to collect their certificates and medals…but not the prize money. Nobel prize historian, Asle Sveen, told Reuters: “It is always a risk when they promote somebody, and they cannot predict what is going to happen in the future. That is what makes the Nobel Peace Prize different from all the other peace prizes, otherwise, you would give the prize to very old people just before they die.”
That’s one way to be sure. To be sure of…
Some people are overlooked, while others are given the award and don’t want it. It’s rare, but it happens. French philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Satre declined his Nobel Prize in literature in 1964, but then he declined any awards. In 1973, Communist Vietnamese leader Le Duc Tho was jointly awarded the peace prize with U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for their work negotiating the Paris Peace Accords during the Vietnam War. Kissinger accepted, but Tho refused, because they hadn’t actually achieved peace.
In the days of Cancel Culture and bludgeoning each other with the question “can you separate the art from the artist?” without ever actually answering it, there are definitely some names in the winners’ circle that would raise eyebrows and trend hashtags. Like William Shockley, co-inventor of the transistor, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1956, and was an unrepentant racist who later turned his attention to eugenics. Or Kary Mullis, the 1993 winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, who is a big fan of LSD, no shade thrown there, but also champions astrology and claims he’d had an encounter with aliens, in the form of a talking, glowing raccoon. That’s not going to help his reputation, you might think, but sounds more eccentric than harmful. He’s also an AIDS denier who lent his Nobel Laureate credibility to a molecular biologist who insists that the HIV virus is harmless and AIDS is actually caused by recreational drug use and anti-HIV pharmaceuticals. I’ll give you a moment with that one. The 1918 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Fritz Haber, whose method for synthesizing ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen for use as fertilizer is actually a key factor is the hockey stick growth rate of human population because of this supernatural way to enhance soil. Arguably, Haber’s responsible for the existance of two billion people…and the excrutiating deaths of thousands. Haber is also the man who weaponized chlorine gas for use on WWI battlefields. Side note, did you grandma ever catch you pulling a silly face and say “If the wind shifts, your face will stay like that?” That comes from WWI. Chlorine gas is heavier than air and when the wind blew it into the trenches, the unfortunate souls there died with terrible grimaces.
The 2001 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine, Tim Hunt, told a luncheon of female journalists and scientists, “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them they cry.” Hunt later claimed his remarks were “intended as a light-hearted, ironic comment.” Ah yes, Schrodinger’s joke, wherein an a-hole posts something he means online, then claims it was a joke when he’s called out on it. I, for one, ain’t buyin’ it and neither did Pulitzer-Prize winning science writer Deborah Blum, who wrote, “Statements like this are indicators of an ingrained attitude that, yes, does make it harder for women to advance in the world of science.”
And then there’s James Watson. You heard about him in episode in episode 125, Been Caught Stealing, when he and two colleagues stole the work of Rosalind Franklin and won the Nobel prize for “discovering” the helical structure of DNA. He never gave Rosalind Franklin credit, but he was more than happy to criticize her appearance and clothing whenever an opportunity presented itself. One wonders about his understanding of genetics, though. During a lecture at Berkeley, he suggested there are biochemical links between sexual libido and skin color (“That’s why you have Latin lovers.”) and between body weight and ambition. He declared in an interview that “some anti-Semitism is justified,” kind of like beloved children’s author Roald Dahl saying “Hitler didn’t hate the Jews for no reason.” Proving you can always dig the hole a little deepers, he also declared he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours—whereas all the testing says not really.” When he was taken to task for his statements, Watson threw a hissy fit and auctioned off his medal and, one assumes, rolled around naked in the $4.1 million it sold for.
You don’t have to have a laminated SJW card to see racism and sexism behind Nobel prize snubs. Xenophobia and Eurocentricity, too. Shockingly, nominations for a Scandanavian award heavily favor Europe. While we don’t know how 2020 is going to shake out, as of 2019, Nobel Prizes have been awarded to a total of 866 men, 53 women, and 24 organizations. Let me do some quick math [sfx], individual women have won less than 6% of Nobel prizes. Among female Laureates, it breaks down as 17 Peace Prizes, 16 for Literature, (no surprise that those are the two biggest categories), 12 for Medicine, 7 for Chemistry, 4 for Physics, and 2 for the quazi-Nobel prize for Economics.
One of the perhaps best-known *alleged gender-based snubs was the case of Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who discovered pulsars in 1967. She published a paper with her adviser, Antony Hewish and Hewish and another male colleague were given the Nobel Prize for it in 1974. Her name was literally on the paper the award was being given for. This is why a lot of women, including sliding-into-infamy JK Rowling, use initials instead of first names. Austrian-Swedish physicist Lise Meitner discovered nuclear fission of uranium, the committee awarded the prize for it to her longtime collaborator Otto Hahn, alone. At least she got some recognition in 1982, when a newly-discovered element was named in her honor, Meitnerium.
You can’t talk about women and the Nobel prize without immediately thinking of Marie Curie, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the only woman to have won more than one. She won in Physics in 1903 with her husband, Pierre and in 1911, in Chemistry. Science and the Nobel prize were a family business for the Curies, Marie’s daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie, won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935, making them the only mother-daughter pair to have won Nobel Prizes.
We hold Marie Curie in high esteem these days, but you hardly need me to tell you that wasn’t the case in her lifetime. You don’t need me to, but I’m going to anyway. Even as Curie’s reputation as a capable brilliant scientist grew, so did the scrutiny of her private life, resulting in what could reductively be called a sex scandal. Four years after Pierre died in a carriage accident, the 43 year old Marie became involved with one of his former students, physicist Paul Langevin. Her still-married former student. The two had a secret apartment in Paris and Langevin’s wife hired a man to break in and steal evidence of their affair, in the form of incriminating letters that were leaked to the press. French newspapers went gaga. They painted Polish-born Curie as a home-wrecker who had started the affair while her husband was still alive and that she was a seductive Jewess, when she wasn’t even Jewish. The public was outraged, and not in our modern ‘make two tweets and a FB post’ kind of outrate. Curie returned home from a conference one night to find an angry mob surrounding her house, harassing her two daughters, causing them to flee to a friend’s house.
Not wanting to see his lover dragged in the papers, Langevin challenged one reporter, who had called him “a boor and a coward” to a duel. Elaborate preparations were made, but when the fateful moment arrived, the reporter refused to shoot so as not to remove one of France’s greatest minds (cough Langevin never won a Nobel prize) and Langevin declared that he wasn’t an assassin and put his gun down, too. The story was such big business for the papers that it sparked a second duel, this time between two newspaper editors, over the veracity of the jilted wife’s accusations. The two fought with swords, and after “several fierce bouts,” one man was injured, then they shook hands and made up. Albert Einstein tried to help, I guess, maybe, if you tilt it to the side and squint. He said Curie “has a sparkling intelligence, but despite her passionate nature, she is not attractive enough to represent a threat to anyone.” Tell you what, Al, don’t do me no favors, okay?
It was at the height of the whole kerfuffle that Curie won her second Nobel in 1911. The committee gave credit where credit was due, but they were adamant that Curie should sit out the ceremony. But they didn’t actually bar Curie from attending. Said Biochemist Olof Hammarsten: “If she comes and this matter surfaces, that would create difficulties at the ceremony, in particular at the banquet.” Wrote Nobel laureate Svante Arrhenius to Marie: “I beg you to stay in France; no one can calculate what might happen here…I hope therefore that you will telegraph…that you do not wish to accept the prize before the Langevin trial shows the accusations about you are absolutely without foundation,” referring to a court hearing for Langevin and his wife scheduled for just after the ceremony. Einstein, actually helping this time, wrote to Curie, encouraging her to go, “If the rabble continues to be occupied with you, simply stop reading that drivel. Leave it to the vipers it was fabricated for.” Curie went. She’d won an unprecedented second Nobel prize and she was damned if she was going to let anyone take that from her. The ceremony and banquet passed without incident and the newspapers got bored and moved on. Science had been Curie’s life, and her death. Prolonged exposure to radioactive materials exacts a high cost, we know now. To this day, Marie Curie’s notebooks are too radioactive to handle.
While today’s episode is just a sampling of the stories from the history of the Nobel prize –see also the 2018 prize for Literature being suspended when the winner was convicted of sexual assault and even accused of groping the Swedish princess– there’s one story that stands out from the pack. In April 1940, the Nazis were invading Denmark. Scientists working at the famous physicist Niels Bohr’s laboratory in Copenhagen had custody of the Nobel prize medals for Physics belonging to Max von Laue and James Franck, which had been smuggled out of Germany for safe-keeping. Well, it was a good idea at the time. The Nazi party had forbidden any gold to be taken out of Germany –taking over the world is expensive– and they suspected the medals had been spirited away, but they’d need to find the medals to have evidence of the crime. This is where Hungarian chemist George de Hevesy comes in. He first thought to bury the medals, classic, but that idea got voted down as too obvious. His next idea went *way in the other direction…dissolve the medals and recover the gold when it was safe. As mental as it sounds to protect something by destroying it, Hevesy’s contemporaries liked the idea. Just one problem, though. Gold is extremely unreactive, doesn’t want to dissolve in anything, with one notable exception: aqua regia.
Aqua regia is a blend of hydrochloric acid and nitric acids. Individually, neither of the acids can dissolve gold, but with their powers combined, they can. The nitric acid oxidises a tiny amount of gold to form gold ions, and the hydrochloric acid provides chloride ions which react with the gold ions. This removes gold ions from the solution, allowing the nitric acid to oxidise a little more. Lather, rinse, repeat and voila, an orange solution of chloroauric acid. Not so fast. No, I mean, it’s not so fast. While we don’t know for certain how long the process took, we do know that it is a slow process to dissolve even a gram of gold, let alone the 200 grams de Hevesy had to do. But he did it and the solution that used to be two Nobel prizes could be hidden in plain sight with the other chemicals in the lab.
And it worked! The Nazis combed the lab from top to bottom searching for the medals, but thanks to de Hevesy’s absolutely mad idea, they didn’t find even a trace. Many years later, a reagent was added to the chloroauric acid and elemental gold began to precipitate out. This was sent to the Nobel committee, who recast the medals. De Hevesy received a Nobel Prize of his own, though not for this splendid caper, but for his work with isotopes.
And that’s where…
Robert Wilson walked across the street at 2am to tell fellow Stanford University colleague Paul Milgrom that they had won the 2020 Nobel prize for economics for their work on auctions that benefit buyers and sellers around the globe. The committee had been trying to reach Milgrom for hours, but he’d had his phone on silent, prompting his neighbour to step outside and deliver the news in person. ‘I was asleep and the doorbell rang at 2 in the morning. And then I picked up the phone – it’s a video doorbell. And I saw Bob’s face and he was knocking at the door, telling me that they were trying to call me and that we had won a Nobel Prize, which is pretty, pretty good news,’ Milgrom said.