Popularity is not a criterion for Nobel Prize: Committee member

T V Jayan New Delhi | Updated on September 16, 2019

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Alfred Nobel clearly wrote that the honour should go to the greatest discovery within that year

A senior Swedish Science Academy member, who is also a member of the Nobel Committee, said that neither the number of nominations received for a single scientist nor his or her popularity is a criterion for choosing the person for the coveted prize

“We get hundreds of nominations every year. And I can say that about 25 per cent of them are newly nominated candidates that we have never heard of and 75 per cent are generally people that we might have seen,” said Juleen Zierath, professor of clinical integrative physiology at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden. Zierath is also a member of Nobel Committee that proposes winners of the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine since 2011.

This is true for the other two Nobel science prizes – in chemistry and physics – as well, she said .

Zierath is also a Fellow of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which chooses the winners for these science prizes. Between 2013 and 2015, she had served as the chair of Nobel committee for physiology or medicine.

Zierath, together with French physicist Serge Haroche, the 2012 Nobel Prize winner in physics, was in India last week to create awareness about these much-acclaimed laurels among Indian scientists, students and teachers. This was part of the Nobel Prize Series 2019, organised jointly by the Nobel Media and the Indian scientific agencies such as Department of Science and Technology and Department of Biotechnology.

Nominations for the Nobel Prize

The Nobel Prizes are announced annually in six areas - economics, literature and peace being others - in the first few days of October ever year. The prizes are based on nominations. However, a scientist cannot nominate himself. Then again, a single nomination makes a candidate eligible for the award.

There are a number of candidates who receive multiple nominations. “But the number of nominations doesn’t necessarily predict the winner,” Zeirath said adding that science prizes are normally given achievements that are paradigm shifting in nature.

“While choosing the winners, what the Nobel committees normally follow is something of a deletion test. They would see if the nominated individual is removed from the scene whether the discovery or invention could still have been made? Or whether it a next logical step in the scientific progress? Or did he or she do something that was really unexpected,” she said.

According to the Swedish scientists, in his will, Alfred Nobel clearly wrote that the honour should go to the greatest discovery within that year. This often happens in the case of physiology or medicine, but not in other scientific disciplines.

In physics, for instance, a discovery is not awarded unless it is proven through experiments. “It is one of the reasons why more experimental scientists have got Nobel Prize for physics than their theoretical counterparts,” said Serge Haroche, who won the 2012 Nobel prize for trapping individual photons in cavity and measuring and manipulating them using atoms.

Despite being one of the biggest physicists since Albert Einsein, Stephen Hawking never received a Nobel Prize as his theories are yet to be proven, Haroche said.

He added that Einstein deserved at least six or seven Nobel Prizes for his profound discoveries. But he had won only one prize for his work on photoelectric effect, which is considered less significant among his contributions.

Published on September 16, 2019

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