x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Nobel needs to get back to basics

Alfred Nobel created his prizes to honour those who greatly benefit mankind, yet the science prizes increasingly reward research with no real benefits for most.

Emeritus professor at the University of Edinburgh, British Peter Higgs is seen. AFP Photo / University Of Edinburgh / Peter Reid
Emeritus professor at the University of Edinburgh, British Peter Higgs is seen. AFP Photo / University Of Edinburgh / Peter Reid

Picture the scene: announcing the latest winners of the Nobel Prizes later this week, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences declares that the physics prize has gone to ... the inventor of a gas valve.

Astonishingly enough, that's just what happened exactly a century ago, when the committee for the 1912 Nobel Prize rejected more than a dozen nominees - including Albert Einstein - in favour of an obscure Swedish engineer.

Few today remember Nils Gustaf Dalen, and fewer still his invention of a gadget for regulating the gas used by lighthouses. It's just not the sort of breakthrough we associate with the most prestigious prizes in science.

But the thing is, it ought to be. The eponymous founder of the prizes (and the inventor of dynamite) specifically stated they were to be awarded to those who "during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind".

And while the discovery of, say, the Higgs boson particle or pulsating stars may keep scientists in gainful employment, it confers little real benefit on the rest of us.

In contrast, Dalen's long- forgotten invention helped save countless lives by allowing lighthouses and marine buoys to work maintenance-free for months on end, at very little cost.

Over the years, such breakthroughs have largely been overlooked by the Nobel committee in favour of advances so esoteric even most scientists would struggle to explain them. Perhaps not surprisingly, the prizes now often receive less coverage than the annual "Ig Nobels", spoof awards for research that "first makes you laugh, then makes you think" - such as why toast tends to land butter-side down.

When the committee does stick more closely to its proper remit, the results have been impressive. Among the inventions that have won the prize are the transistor, the laser and the microchip, which have unquestionably conferred huge benefits on mankind.

The committee has a rather less impressive record when judging the merits of medical breakthroughs. In 1926, the Nobel for Medicine went to the Danish pathologist Johannes Fibiger, for his discovery that cancer was linked to tissue irritation. Even as he collected the prize, it was becoming clear that his evidence was shaky, and it was soon debunked.

An even more egregious case emerged in 1949, when the same Nobel was awarded to Antonio Moniz, a Portuguese doctor who pioneered the use of lobotomies as a means of "treating" psychiatric patients. By the 1950s, American brain surgeons were applying the method wholesale, with about 100 patients a week being robbed of their higher mental faculties.

The Nobel committee has since tried to justify Moniz's award by claiming that no other treatment was available. Yet, even at the time, experts insisted the operation was ethically dubious.

A major challenge facing the Nobel committee is that cutting-edge science has outgrown the prizes. Breakthroughs today are often multidisciplinary, transcending the original three scientific categories of physics, chemistry or medicine/physiology.

The lone genius working in a lab has also been subsumed by small armies of researchers, yet Nobel Prizes can only be awarded to a maximum of three researchers in any one year.

Another challenge has been maintaining the profile of the Nobel in the face of equally lucrative prizes with fewer constraints.

The Millennium Technology Prize, inaugurated in 2004, has stolen some of the Nobel's lustre, being able to give its US$1 million (Dh3.7m) award to such luminaries as Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, and Shuji Nakamura, the inventor of the white light-emitting diode (LED). Neither are likely to win a Nobel Prize, despite clearly meeting its originator's intentions.

In fairness, the Royal Swedish Academy has acknowledged the need to reflect the changing nature of science. So far, however, it has proved reluctant to embrace change, despite the alacrity with which it ditched that stipulation about conferring benefit on mankind.

This year it faces one of its toughest-ever decisions: whether to award the Nobel Prize for Physics to the discovery of the Higgs boson.

To judge by the media coverage, the British theoretical physicist, Professor Peter Higgs, of Edinburgh University, is all but guaranteed to win the prize on Tuesday.

Certainly, there's little doubt that the discovery of "the Higgs" at the Large Hadron Collider in Cern, Geneva, merits a Nobel - at least by the standards of previous awards. The existence of the Higgs would explain why everything possesses mass and also brings scientists closer to the ultimate Theory of Everything, which describes all the forces and particles in the universe in a single set of equations. Yet the fact is that, despite all the media hoopla, the existence of the Higgs particle has still to be confirmed. The results unveiled earlier this year certainly point to the existence of a particle with some of the properties expected of the Higgs. But its identity depends on other, more esoteric, properties that have yet to be fully confirmed. And until they are, awarding the Nobel for the discovery would be somewhat risky.

Then there is the awkward fact that Prof Higgs was not alone in suggesting the existence of the particle, nor even the first. There are at least five other theorists with reasonable claims to taking a share of the Nobel, which is at least two more than the maximum permitted.

And then there is the delicate matter of Prof Higgs himself: at 83, he's not as young as he was. In principle, the Nobel Prize cannot be awarded posthumously, though last year it made an exception when one of the recipients of the Medicine Prize died just a few days before the announcement.

When it announces the winner of the prize on Tuesday, the Swedish Academy will be telling the world more than just a name. It will be revealing whether it still bases its decisions on the standards of science, or has gone the way of so many other institutions and decided to bow to the demands of the media.

 

Robert Matthews is Visiting Reader in Science at Aston University in Birmingham, England