I wrote up this year’s Nobel Prize awards in chemistry yesterday, and there’s no arguing that they’re significant achievements worthy of a prize at this level. For many chemists, though, I think that this year’s award will join the 2015, 2012, 2009, 2008, 2006, 2004, 2003, 1997, and 1993 ones (and there are arguably even more) as years when molecular biology was redefined by the Nobel Committee as chemistry in order to recognize its achievements. I’ve written about many of these awards on this blog over the years, and have often made the case that (1) there’s more chemistry involved in them than one would think and (2) that chemists themselves need to broaden their own definitions of what their field encompasses. Both of those are true, but at this point, there’s also little doubt that the character of the chemistry prize has changed. And I speak as someone whose own career has, over the years, moved from pure organic synthesis to more chemical biology, so I hope I can’t be accused of sour grapes in this regard.
Those achievements in molecular biology are real and absolutely worth the recognition that the prize confers. But Alfred Nobel’s will recognizes no such area of science. The prizes do not even recognize an area of science called “biology”. Nobel’s will stipulated certain definite categories and made no provision for changes, and Swedish law is (I’m told) quite rigorous about this sort of thing, so we are stuck with what Alfred Nobel thought (in 1895) to be the most appropriate categories of scientific progress. Like every other prediction of that sort from the late 19th century, this one has inevitably gone off the rails, and the grinding noises are nowhere louder than at the border between chemistry and biology.
The prizes for science, for all their difficulties are still in better shape than the ones for Peace and for Literature. The former has mixed worthy recipients in with some wild misfires over the years, diluting its impact. The latter, which in its early years distinguished itself by failing to recognize Joyce, Tolstoy, and Proust, has in more recent times put itself in danger of becoming a not-very-amusing joke. (There isn’t even an award this year because the committee itself is in such disarray). That’s not to say that there haven’t been some odd awards in the sciences. Johannes Fibiger won in 1926 for supposedly showing the infectious nature of cancer in experiments with rats and cockroaches (and that one was another mess, with no actual award in 1926 and a catch-up retroactive award in 1927, which is what the literature prize is planning on for 2019). His experiments are, though, completely erroneous. Another famous one was the Moniz award in 1949 for developing the surgical technique of prefrontal lobotomy, which in retrospect does not look like as much of a benefit to mankind as it must have at the time. In the chemistry prize, one of the stranger awards (in restrospect) was Artturi Vitanen‘s 1945 prize for (largely) an improved method of storing cattle fodder. Beyond these, if we get into the various arguments about credit, both false positives and false negatives, there will be no end to it.
But any prize, administered in any fashion, will have its controversies. Criticizing the Nobels for these is actually besides the point, or at least besides mine at the moment. I think that the problem with the prizes is the inflexibility of Nobel’s will and the subsequent adherence to it. An email correspondent of mine favored the idea that anyone setting up a foundation in their will should have a review provision in it beginning a certain number of years after their death, with the administrators being authorized to make increasingly large changes as time went on (or to dissolve the thing altogether). I find some merit in that idea, but we certainly don’t have that with the Nobels, so that’s a separate problem.
But even the adherence to Nobel’s will has been inconsistent. The Literature prize is supposed to be for “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”. What that means is open to debate, but there are numerous winners that it seems hard to apply to. The Economics prize is not, strictly speaking, a Nobel at all, but an add-on memorial prize started in 1969. It attracted criticism at the time, and still does. But instead of complaining about how the Economics prize is a violation of Nobel’s intent, why not violate it some more by starting “Nobel Memorial Prizes” in biology, in mathematics, in whatever areas we see fit? And allow ourselves to revisit those new categories over time?
This is not a new proposal. It will probably never happen. The existing prizes have too long a history by now, especially in the popular imagination. That’s the biggest difficulty with the science prizes, perhaps: the bulk of the population does not understand what any particular science Nobel is for, because they don’t have the background for it. For many of them, this may be the only time they ever hear about ubiquitination, phage display, palladium-catalyzed coupling, or the like. It’s good to have something that puts great achievements in these fields into the public eye once a year, but messing around with the awards risks that. The world could get along fine without hearing about these things every October, I fear, and if we add more prizes and rearrange things it might decide to do just that.
Back to chemistry, then. As it stands, I see no real solution to the “That prize isn’t chemistry!” problem. It’s a large enough field that molecular biology can be jammed into it without (much) shame, and that brings us to another difficult subject: there have been more world-impacting discoveries in that field over the last decades than there have been in chemistry. I know I’m going to get roasted in the comments for saying that – and let me make clear up front that I think that there have indeed been great discoveries in chemistry itself. But molecular biology has been having a tremendous run, and its implications for human health and the nature of life itself give it a very high profile.
Chemistry, as a science, has always been stuck in an awkward position when you try to explain its importance. Biology, as just mentioned, can often point to direct connections to medicine. All you have to do in the press release for any big prize in that area is mention “cure for cancer” or the like. Physics often alternates between being stupendously removed from everyday life and being right on top of it. By the latter, I mean things like the development of nuclear weapons, or of new energy sources. For the former, there are phrases like “the God particle” or “how the Universe is put together”. You can write a headline with this stuff.
What’s the magic phrase for chemistry? There isn’t one; there never is. We always find ourselves two or three layers of explanation away. The Haber-Bosch process makes ammonia, and people say “Big deal”, but then you have to explain that it actually feeds the world, because of nitrogen this and fertilizer that. Palladium-catalyzed coupling reactions form carbon-carbon bonds, and people say “So what”, and you have to explain that this is how many of the medicines that they’re taking get made these days. And some chemistry prizes are so many layers down in explanation that you just have to tell people to take your word for it, that the discovery of a new form of carbon or fivefold symmetric quasicrystals were a big deal, trust us. (Physics has some of these too, naturally, but next year there’s always the key to the universe coming back around again).
So what I’m saying is that as far as I can see, Chemistry as a field is just going to have to deal. We have little or no leverage in the Nobel space, and complaints about how the prizes need to get back to “real chemistry” are, I’m afraid, a waste of time. The Nobels are flawed, yes indeed, in several key ways. But that realization and a dollar will buy you a bag of potato chips.