This paper comes out and states what chemists have known for some time now: the Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been changing over the years, very likely as a deliberate action on the part of the committee that awards it. It’s now more properly described as the award for “Chemistry or the Life Sciences”.
That the Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been waylaid by achievements in the life sciences is neither a reflection that chemistry has been intellectually stagnant nor that chemists have been undeserving of the Nobel Prize. In fact, there are many chemists-in-waiting whose research contributions merit a Nobel Prize. Indeed, there is an increasing population of unannointed but dead chemists deserving the onetime though now-nonexistent Posthumous Nobel Prize. And the same can be said for unannointed but deserving life scientists.
To the disadvantage of deserving chemists, the glaring fact is, there are so many achievements in the life sciences that they cannot all be recognized within the rubric of the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine where such achievements were once honored. Indeed, there is not enough “space” to honor all the chemists who deserve Nobel Prize, and perhaps there never could be enough space. . .
I’ll bet that many of you (like me) were unaware that there had ever been posthumous Nobel awards, and it’s true that there were never any in the sciences. But this article notes that the 1931 Literature prize went to Erik Axel Karlfeldt after his death, as did the 1961 Peace prize to Dag Hammarskjöld, both in apparent flat contradiction to the terms of Nobel’s will. In 1974 the rules were quietly modified to eliminate such awards. There’s another change like that which I also had no idea about: in 1968, the “three or fewer awardees” rule was made explicit. Apparently before that a Nobel could in theory be shared by up to four people, although in practice that never happened. I had no idea; I had thought that Nobel’s original terms had the limit of three people. And while we’re talking changes to the Nobel process, 1968 was of course the year that the Swedish Central Bank instituted an Economics prize “in memory of Alfred Nobel”. Every year during the awards season people point out that the Economics prize isn’t technically a “real” Nobel, since it’s not actually affiliated with the Nobel Foundation and was not provided for in Nobel’s will, but it’s interesting that (1) the Nobel Foundation let this parallel prize be established that first time and (2) that nothing like that has ever happened since.
The paper goes into a great amount of detail on the question of how separate chemistry and biochemistry are (and have been) and how separate the latter is from the ostensible domain of the Physiology or Medicine prize. Prize winners over time in these categories are analyzed by where they published during their careers, as a reasonable proxy for what field they were in (or at least thought that they were in!) Overall, the Physiology/Medicine prize has stayed almost exclusively in the life sciences, while the Chemistry prize has undergone its easily demonstrated broadening/dilution/shift in focus.
There’s also an extensive analysis of the makeup of the Chemistry Nobel’s committee members and their scientific fields of expertise over the years. And as you might have guessed, there is indeed an increasing percentage of biochemistry/life sciences members, with presumably a parallel appreciation for scientific accomplishments in these areas. But there’s a chicken-and-egg question there, too: no one can deny that these fields have been of great scientific interest over the last few decades, either, so it’s not like this is necessarily some top-down decision to recast the awards committees.
This does lead to some quietly awkward moments, though. The paper notes that a 2001 essay on the 100 years of the chemistry prize (an official review endorsed by the Nobel Foundation) was written by two biochemists, and contains several errors of fact and arguable statements, all of which have to do with chemical topics (see Talbe SI-6 here). Similarly, a 2015 book on crystallography and the Nobel awards, edited by (and partially written by) members of the awards committee, gives the impression that Dorothy Hodgkins’ crystallography work (in itself absolutely unimpeachable, of course) was the first determination that what we now know as the beta-lactam antibiotics had that four-membered ring structure. But that structure had been proposed with a lot of solid chemical evidence behind it some time before by several chemists – R.B. Woodward advocated it, for example, although there were others before him and he came around to the idea a bit later. For organic chemists, Hodgkins’ results were a confirmation of the beta-lactam structure, but the Nobel crystallography book would make a person think that the X-ray marked its discovery instead.
The paper has a great deal of detail – more than many readers will want to work though – about the organization of the various Nobel prize committees. Suffice it to say that they are very much in communication with each other, and have been for decades, and that they clearly engage in a good deal of coordination about which prizes might go where, and when. That goes for planning for future awards, too. The expansion of the Chemistry award (whatever one’s opinion of it) is no accident, whether it’s been done via some directive of the Nobel Foundation or via the preferences of the individual committee members themselves. But is this the best way to handle things? The authors think not:
Is the current structure of the Nobel Prizes optimal for the future? The evidence is, “certainly not.” In a way, the Nobel Foundation and the Nobel’s prize-awarding bodies have produced a patchwork of change over the past several decades, a force-fit into the schema of Alfred Nobel. That strategy will not suffice forever.
Truly, the question is not if but when. Today’s packaging of the Nobel Prizes must change. . .
That’s the question: if the Nobel folks have decided that posthumous prizes are awardable, at least in some categories (and why just those?) and then decided that they aren’t, if they’ve resisted expansion of the prize categories but given tacit blessing to the Economics prize decades after the others were instituted, etc., then the argument that they’re just bound by the terms of Nobel’s will aren’t tenable. There have been cases where a foundation established via a detailed bequest has held on to the original terms for as long as it could (indeed, until it faced bankruptcy, as in the case of the Barnes Foundation art collection). Albert Barnes (himself a chemist, actually, who made his fortune off a silver nitrate antiseptic preparation) would surely be horrified that his artworks are now displayed in Philadelphia rather than in the gallery he had built for them, and are open to the public year-round rather than on his explicitly stated and restrictive schedule. But you know what? Barnes has been dead for a long time now, and so has Alfred Nobel, whose foundation hasn’t even always honored his wishes as much as Barnes’ honored his.
As for those terms: I’ve thought for some time that such posthumous foundations should probably have some sort of sunset provision in them. There is a limit to how long the living should have to honor the wishes of the dead. Deciding that there Is Not and Must Never Be a Nobel prize in biology (to pick one big example) seems increasingly ridiculous as the decades go on. Science goes on the way it goes no matter what Alfred Nobel thought before his death in 1896 – he was no prophet and no Hari Seldon proposing some centuries-long plan. He didn’t even set up a body to administer the prizes – all that was done on the fly after his death, and we don’t even know how long he envisioned them being awarded.
So I agree with the authors of this paper: the Nobel Foundation should admit to what they’ve been doing in private, which is to alter the character of the prizes over time. And they should not only admit it, they should embrace it, and modernize the whole system to get rid of the weird unfair quirkiness that disfigures the process as it stands. Will that cheapen the prizes in general? Well, it could, but it doesn’t have to – and frankly, the way things have been going, the alternative is that they go on cheapening themselves through endless controversies. And if you think the science prizes are a mess, wander over to Peace and Literature and behold the smoking wasteland – the appalling mess that is the Nobel Prize for Literature should be warning enough for anyone. This is the danger that all long-running awards face, and if nothing is done you end up with people paying attention (if they do at all) mostly because of the arguments, the slights, and the mistakes, which is like going to an auto race just to see some spectacular crashes. Do it. The chance of Nobel’s ghost coming back to haunt the committee seem worth the risk.