Noble Prizes

Someday, in my copious spare time, I’m going to tabulate the
Noble prizewinners – consisting of the people who really should have
gotten the Nobel prizes. I would add disciplines not part of the Nobel
prizes, such as geophysics; politely retract prizes from guys who later
turned out to be mistaken, like Fibiger – and of course no prize for people
who appropriated the work of others. So no prizes for Hewish. or
Waksman. And, of course, one would want to go back in time well before
Nobel. I would hope to be fair, not overly Scandi-centric like some folks
we know. And, just for fun, I would like to classify the prizes into a few
discovery categories. There’s the most common kind, where someone is doing
high-quality work in a particular area and runs into something new and
important as a fairly natural consequence of being at the leading edge. At
the other end of the spectrum, you have the guy who has been struck,
sometimes repeatedly, by an overwhelming bolt of inspiration, who does stuff
that maybe nobody else could.
The only problem is that in order to do a fair job of this, one would
have to know virtually everything. I could use some help, probably

So: Oswald Avery, Colin MacLeod, and Maclyn McCarty win the prize for biology in 1944.

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54 Responses to Noble Prizes

  1. The Monster from Polaris says:

    I hope Jocelyn Bell Burnell gets a prize for discovering pulsars.
    Will there be a category of prizes for conscientious people who follow up a lead that others might dismiss as uninteresting scruff?

  2. One just has to google “Greatest Physicist/Biologist/Writer/Economist/Chemist of all time” :). Time is the best evaluator of their values…
    And it would be great to include mathematicians though. It is the weirdest thing not to include math in Nobel…

  3. MawBTS says:

    It goes without saying that Richard Lewontin has earned a Nobel Prize in Literature, and the Peace Prize rightly belongs to Harambe.

  4. dearieme says:

    If Avery & Co, surely Griffith must get one too?

    As for Crick and Watson: should they have been joined by the research student (Raymond Gosling) who took Photo 51?

    Come to think of it, you could play an interesting but narrower game just by decreeing that you’ll allow four recipients rather than three.

    That would allow adding one more to the Penicillin prize: Norman Heatley, perhaps, or would that be pushing things too far?

  5. dearieme says:

    “one would want to go back in time well before Nobel”: have a care. Once you give the award to Newton, Faraday, and Maxwell, you have established a standard that is unreachable by all but .. who? Einstein and Planck, I suppose. Maybe Rutherford? Not a lot, anyway: most Physics Prizes would have to be withdrawn.

    • dearieme says:

      Ditto Darwin and Mendel: retrospectively scrap all the other bio people until you reach Avery et al and C & W. In Geophysics, Lyle and Hutton and who? The main proponents of plate tectonics I suppose, whoever they were, and that fellow who first advocated Continental Drift, Wegener. (I say “first” but only because he was who we heard about at school: was there someone earlier?)

      As for maths: I don’t think it should be polluted with a Nobel.

      • mapman says:

        “scrap all the other bio people until you reach Avery et al”

        Pavlov, Erlich, Koch, Warburg, Morgan, Szent-Györgyi, Krebs – all at least as deserving as Avery.

      • syonredux says:

        dearieme:”Ditto Darwin and Mendel: retrospectively scrap all the other bio people until you reach Avery et al and C & W. In Geophysics, Lyle and Hutton and who? The main proponents of plate tectonics I suppose, whoever they were, and that fellow who first advocated Continental Drift, Wegener. (I say “first” but only because he was who we heard about at school: was there someone earlier?)”

        I Have a chemist pal who tells me that nothing really fundamental has been done in the field since Pauling’s 1931“The nature of the chemical bond”…..

        • dearieme says:

          Longuet-Higgins gave up Theoretical Chemistry in the sixties because, he said, it had all been done: WKPD –

          in 1954 [he] became John Humphrey Plummer Professor of Theoretical Chemistry at Cambridge … in 1967, he made a major change in his career by moving to the University of Edinburgh to co-found the Department of Machine Intelligence and Perception, with Richard Gregory and Donald Michie.

          A friend of mine objects to my referring to Chemistry as an Applied Science but I just cite L-H.

    • syonredux says:

      dearieme:”and that fellow who first advocated Continental Drift, Wegener. (I say “first” but only because he was who we heard about at school: was there someone earlier?)”

      Frank Bursley Taylor springs to mind. The theory of Continental Drift used to be called the “Taylor-Wegener hypothesis”

      • dearieme says:

        I didn’t realise that the theory had started life so early: WKPD –

        The speculation that continents might have ‘drifted’ was first put forward by Abraham Ortelius in 1596.

  6. pyrrhus says:

    Don’t forget Fred Hoyle….

  7. j says:

    Retroactive prizes to long dead people was not the purpose of Alfred Nobel. He wanted to encourage young people, even BEFORE they did the BIG THING. Like granting the prize to Obama at the very beginning of his presidency.

    • Weltanschauung says:

      The Nobel committee have sternly warned the new President-elect that this time he must undergo a somewhat longer probationary period before he can expect his Peace Prize.

      • Omar says:

        But the economics nobel committee assures him that he is already in the running for the 2017 award, having saved 800 jobs before entering the Whitehouse.

  8. Jerome says:

    Alfred Nobel had the foresight to become insanely wealthy before he established his prizes. That has been a huge factor in their wide acceptance. Had you thought of that?

  9. Weltanschauung says:

    Ted Gioia has already done
    The Nobel Prize in Literature from
    an Alternative Universe:
    http://www.greatbooksguide.com/altnobel08.html

    • syonredux says:

      Quite odd how the Nobel committee passed over both Mark Twain and Henry James as the first American laureate in the Lit category.Sinclair Lewis was a decent enough writer (the prize has certainly been given to worse authors), but he’s just not in the same class as Mark and Henry.

      • Ursiform says:

        The literature prize often (usually?) has a political angle to it. Hence Sinclair Lewis.

      • Pincher Martin says:

        By the time Sinclair Lewis became the first American to win the Nobel Prize for literature (1930), Twain and James had both been dead for well over a decade. Twain for two decades. Since the prize is only awarded to the living, it’s not too surprising that both men were overlooked. American literature in general was not appreciated by Europeans at the time, and neither Twain nor James stayed alive long enough into the Nobel era for Europeans to get over their snobbery.

        • Pincher Martin says:

          A more surprising omission for that period is James Joyce. He died in 1941 and wrote his most famous novel in 1922 and two well-regarded works (Dubliners (1914) and A Portrait of An Artist as a Young Man (1916)) more than two decades before his death. Joyce’s work had an immediate impact on writers everywhere and not just in the Anglosphere.

          Yes, Joyce was controversial and his work banned, but it appears that some people on the Nobel committee simply didn’t know who he was.

          The most surprising modern omission is Vladimir Nabokov.

        • syonredux says:

          “Since the prize is only awarded to the living, it’s not too surprising that both men were overlooked. American literature in general was not appreciated by Europeans at the time, and neither Twain nor James stayed alive long enough into the Nobel era for Europeans to get over their snobbery.”

          Dunno. The Nobel Academy has a knack for missing the great figures when it comes to Lit. Note, for example, how they failed to honor both Ibsen and Strindberg. And they were Scandinavians, too.

          • Pincher Martin says:

            Both Ibsen and Strindberg died pretty early in the Nobel-awarding period. Ibsen in 1906 and Strindberg in 1912. That’s not very many years in which to pick among the best-writing historians, poets, novelists, philosophers, and dramatists (and, with Bob Dylan’s selection, music lyrics) – and the Swedish Academy doesn’t have a very steep learning curve.

            The omission of an author like Robert Penn Warren is less understandable. He died in 1989 and had written his best work (both novels and poetry) several decades earlier. He was even nominated for the Nobel in 1958, more than thirty years before he died.

            • syonredux says:

              “Both Ibsen and Strindberg died pretty early in the Nobel-awarding period. Ibsen in 1906 and Strindberg in 1912. That’s not very many years in which to pick among the best-writing historians, poets, novelists, philosophers, and dramatists ”

              Sure, but here’s the list of winners up to 1912:

              1901: Prudhomme

              1902: Mommsen

              1903:Bjornson

              1904:Mistral and Echegaray

              1905: Sienkiewicz

              1906: Carducci

              1907: Kipling

              1908: Eucken

              1909: Lagerlöf

              1910: Heyse

              1911: Maeterlinck

              1912: Hauptmann

              Now, among the deserving winners (Kipling, Mommson, etc), there’s a lot of dead wood. Take Lagerlöf, the 1909 winner. She’s Swedish (like Strindberg). And, for the life of me, I can’t see the logic behind choosing her over Strindberg…..And then there’s Bjornson vs Ibsen in 1903. Two Norwegians, and they went with Bjornson over Ibsen….Sure, it’s less glaring than picking Lagerlöf over Strindberg, but still…

              As I said, the Nobel Committee has a knack for making bad choices when it comes to Lit.

            • syonredux says:

              RE: Robert Penn Warren,

              I would gladly give him Steinbeck’s 1962 Nobel. ALL THE KING’S MEN is vastly superior to Steinbeck’s sentimental sludge.

  10. RCB says:

    This could be a thing.

    • gcochran9 says:

      Maybe it could. You need to establish a few principles, like not considering politics or personal behavior in awarding the prizes. Unlike the Nobels, these awards would be subject to revision, as we learned more. We would have to hash out ways of awarding prizes to group efforts like the detection of gravitational waves. he hard part would be ensuring that the peo0ple running the show – volunteers, sure;y – would stick to those principles. Which would take a miracle.

      But if you did this for a long time without deviating from the true way, everybody would know that this was the real deal, more accurate than the Nobels. For example we would include Edison and Tesla, rather than Nils Dalen.

      Shameless & ready to learn from anybody, we would crib from other existing prizes.

      Even if the awards didn’t entail a wad of cash like the Nobels, they would eventually have high practical value.

      Prizes could have magnitudes, like stars.

      And, of course, there would be anti-Noble prizes, for people that did the most to spread lies and confusion. A few people would win both prizes and anti-prizes.

      We would extend prizes to fields not now covered, like linguistics and paleontology.

      In some fields there might only be anti-prizes, at least for now. So I don’t entirely agree with James Thompson: Freud certainly deserves an anti-prize.

      • engleberg says:

        ‘In some fields there might be only anti-prizes, for now. . . Freud deserves an anti-prize.’

        Darwin for The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals; Paul Ekman for following up.

      • melendwyr says:

        How much notable work did Edison do personally, as opposed to taking credit for?

        • syonredux says:

          “How much notable work did Edison do personally, as opposed to taking credit for?”

          Quite a bit:

          the phonograph

          the quadruplex telegraph

          the carbon microphone

          etc

          And then there’s the fact that he essentially created the modern industrial laboratory…..

      • Patrick L. Boyle says:

        I had always hoped to win the Nobel Prize for bureaucracy.

  11. syonredux says:

    “And, of course, one would want to go back in time well before
    Nobel.’

    My top nominee for retroactive Nobel: Josiah Willard Gibbs

    • syonredux says:

      And then there’s the lengthy list of technologists who deserve to be listed in the ranks of “Noble” laureates:

      James Watt

      The Wright Bros

      Thomas Edison

      Philo Farnsworth

      John Smeaton

      George Stephenson

      Cooke-Wheatstone and Morse-Vail

      etc, etc

  12. Steven WIlson says:

    I was up very early this morning to get ready for a two hour to a stress test. Accordingly, I was very sleepy when I read this post about Nobel Prizes. But because I hadn’t bothered to wash my face and I wasn’t wearing any glasses, I read that: So: Oswald Avery, Colin MacLeod, and Maclyn McCarty win the prize for bigotry in 1944.”

    I thought Greg was being snarky about DNA causing HBD, etc. I’m glad I looked again.
    I suppose this belongs to the same category as misheard song lyrics.

    The stress test went well thought.

  13. DKlondt says:

    Hugh Huxley should have won for sliding filament theory and the subsequent super-impressive work on actomyosin.

    Although curing syphilis with malaria actually worked, Julius Wagner-Jauregg should not have won for his kooky pyrotherapy.

  14. DKlondt says:

    Mendeleev not getting awarded was a travesty.
    Gibbs deserved the prize more than anyone in 1901.
    Although you are probably not a fan, Kimura’s contribution to the field of evolution was amazing and deserved the highest recognition.

  15. Martin L. says:

    Greg, how do you feel about Yasser Arafat’s Nobel Prize? Completely deserved, right?

    • j says:

      Yasser received the prize on the same basis as Obama but he did not deliver. I can reveal that Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden were being considered when Bush spoiled their chances.

  16. Gord Marsden says:

    Galileo ,for astronomy, Newton for physics .

  17. Michael Daxhammer says:

    Dr Cochran,

    as a physicist and expert of pretty everything, at least compared to the average scientist: What’s your take on the best climate and energy policy for the US or the contradictory and hazardous so called Energiewende in Germany (or EU), especially in regard to the feasibility of future technologies, CO2-reduction but also costs?

    I really appreciate your knowledge and coverage of different fields in your posts but couldn’t find a lot on this topic.

    • Esso says:

      I’m not Cochran…but anyway:

      Nuclear would be the obvious solution if you want constant production with no CO2. But having seen the Tihange power plant and some of the new people in Meuse river valley, I can understand if Germans don’t consider it a safe solution in the future.

      I read Germany plans to ban internal combustion engines in automobiles. I think ICEs in hybrid vehicles could go a long way in load following and compensating for intermittency in wind and solar. The horsepower sitting on driveways could easily fry the local grid. If you could make ICEs use low grade fuels with gasification, it would also help with the dependency on oil in transportation (I consider this a bigger problem than CO2, personally).

      There is still the problem of not enough biomass production in Germany. Perhaps some of the Germans could move to Siberia? I hear it’s getting warmer.

    • Darien says:

      Prescription For The Planet by Tom Blees
      http://prescriptionfortheplanet.com/index.php
      http://www.thesciencecouncil.com/pdfs/P4TP4U.pdf

      TL;DR version: plan to replace power generation with IFR https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Integral_fast_reactor and fossil fuel powered vehicles with boron powered ones. Plan how to make coal, oil and gas obsolete in one stroke.

  18. j says:

    Some Nobel Prizes should be granted “in pectore”, when openly acknowledging the importance of the discover would cause a scandal. Darwin. Galton, Pearson may qualify. Also when the discovery must be kept in secret, like Alan Turing and others that only Cochran knows.

  19. IC says:

    Breakthrough Prize

    The Breakthrough Prize is a set of international awards bestowed in three categories by Breakthrough Prize Board in recognition of scientific advance.[1]
    Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences
    Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics
    Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics

    These prizes were founded by Sergey Brin and Anne Wojcicki, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, Yuri Milner and Julia Milner, and Jack Ma and Cathy Zhang. Committees of previous laureates choose the winners from candidates nominated in a process that’s online and open to the public.[2]

    Laureates receive $3 million each in prize money. They attend a televised award ceremony designed to celebrate their achievements and inspire the next generation of scientists. As part of the ceremony schedule, they also engage in a program of lectures and discussions. Those that go on to make fresh discoveries remain eligible for future Breakthrough Prizes.[2]

  20. Richard Harper says:

    How much have Nobel Prizes resulted in more breakthroughs, or are they just retirement bonuses for those past their peak? Are prizes awarded after an unexpected discovery more productive than prizes for achievements to be accomplished in some future? (First to the North Pole; First to develop a mouse to live X number of years; Yacht racing competitions can be very technological; Etc.) My intuition pulls me in the direction of favoring prize announcements first, with results later (hopefully.) Maybe there is a conflict here in intuitions involving deservedness heuristics and consequentialist utilitarianism. Perhaps in some distant future the forecasters in Tetlock’s Good Judgement Project will have a spin-off predicting future breakthrough technologies.

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