Friday, October 09, 2009

Nobel thoughts

As I type this, the winners of the five original Nobel prizes have been named for this year; only the winner of the Bank of Sweden (Nobel memorial) prize in economics remains to be announced. It is usually the case that the science awards are noncontroversial, while the literature, peace and economics awards attract much discussion.

The Physiology and Medicine and the Chemistry awards are richly deserved this year. The Chemistry award has of course attracted lots of interest in India because of the origins of one of its recipients. But I found another point interesting: while there was originally no Nobel prize in "biology", these days there are, in practice, two in molecular biology: the Physiology and Medicine prize, and the Chemistry prize. This year's chemistry prize was awarded for improved understanding of the structure and functioning of the ribosome. Last year, it was awarded for discovering the green fluorescent protein and developing it as an important tool. In 2006, it was awarded for a better understanding of the transcription process; in 2004, for ubiquitin-mediated protein degradation; in 2003, for determining the structure of ion channels.

The Physics prize this year went not to fundamental discoveries, but to inventions: fibre optics and CCDs. But there is a spot of controversy in the award for Charles Kao: the "father of fibre optics" is widely held to be Narinder Singh Kapany, whose work preceded Kao's by over a decade. Kapany's work focussed on imaging, while Kao's Nobel award was specifically for developing fibres that could carry signals over 100 kilometres; both innovations were extremely significant, and both were technological rather than fundamental.

The literature prize went to Herta Mueller, whom I hadn't heard of. But this must be the hardest prize to give: there are more deserving candidates than prizes available, and unlike in the sciences, it doesn't make sense to share it among multiple candidates. I had never heard of Wisława Szymborska, the 1996 winner, until two weeks ago (well, I suppose I'd heard her name in 1996, but it did not stick in my memory); having been introduced to her poetry, I find it extremely interesting.

That leaves the peace prize, announced today. I personally think it is a laughable idea giving it to Barack Obama at this stage of his career, when he has absolutely no concrete achievements, has backtracked from many of his earlier promises, has had his Justice Department defend the torture of innocent people by the previous administration, is prolonging the war in Afghanistan, and is achieving little success in his domestic agenda.

Perhaps the future will vindicate this prize; but giving a prize for future achievements requires extraordinary clairvoyance.

It remains to be seen what surprises are sprung by the award committee for the Economics prize. We will know soon.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The economics prize also to B Obama, for trying to fix the US health care system.