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Nobel Prize Week

This is the week that the Nobel Prizes are announced, and we've already had two fascinating announcements. Yesterday, the prize in Medicine went to Robert G. Edwards, who helped develop human in vitro fertilization. The Physics prize today went to Andre Geim and Konstatin Novoselov for the discovery of graphene.

I've always been most interested in the Nobel Prize in Physics, as Physics was my main area of study in college and graduate school. Years ago, when I was just starting graduate school, I met Frederick Reines, and we talked about what constituted Nobel-level research. He made an interesting point, that technically the Nobel Prizes are supposed to be given for work done in the previous calendar year, but if nothing Nobel-worthy seems to have been done, the committee has to reach back into the past to honor earlier work. Thus, an experiment that might not have been considered Nobel-worthy at the time is elevated to the rank of Nobel-worthy.

His remark was prescient. In 1995, four years after I met Reines, he won the Nobel Prize for the neutrino experiment he had done in 1956. He died three years after that.

I love the idea of prizes given for intellectual accomplishment in the sciences; given how important the sciences are to humanity, there ought to be more of them. But at the same time, I can't help but be concerned about the envy and jealousy that these prizes might leave in their wake. I recall another physicist I met, a professor of mine whom I won't name, who had done high-level work and had been passed over by the committee year after year. The week the prizes were announced, he came into our classroom to discover that someone had written the names of the new Physics laureates on the whiteboard. He seemed rather put off by the news.
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Scientists who can't look with objectivity on facts, including the fact that someone else was judged better (not necessarily was better, only was judged better), have got problems. I love the intellectual prizes also, although I am generally too unskilled in the sciences to know what exactly they're for. I cheered the Medicine prize this year because so many of my friends and family have children they would have never been able to have without IVF. I might've had to have it myself, if I hadn't managed to get pregnant successfully and unexpectedly without the help; I'd once been told I could not conceive without IVF, though that was proven wrong.

Most of the time I run out and read several things by whoever gets the Literature prize, in translation if need be, and most of the time I am not at all disappointed. That, at least, I know how to judge. The science prizes I just read about in amazement and try to grasp what they're talking about.

"The profoundest act of worship is to try to understand." -- Cat Faber
Heh. A friend of mine works in high-end chilly chemistry, some area of specialisation that is way beyond my pay-grade. People say that sometime soon, his area of expertise is going to attract the attention of the Nobel jury; and when it does, he's as good a candidate as any and better than most. It's ... interesting, being aware of that, and knowing - of course! - that he is just as aware. And wondering if it makes any difference, ever, to his work.
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