Nobel Prizes Started With a Bang

The world's most famous science awards have a curious, glorious history.

View Images

Marie Curie.

Blame it on Madame Curie. Mix the French-Polish physicist's early celebrity, some jousting for international prestige before World War I, and the surging importance of physical sciences over the last century, and you have the recipe that made the Nobel Prize—announced every year this week in October—the world's preeminent award.

Big headlines greeted three Americans on Monday after they earned the Nobel Prize in medicine. James Rothman, Randy Schekman, and Thomas Sudhof were honored for unraveling the mystery of how cells shuttle their goods around.

Similar acclaim greeted Belgium's François Englert and Scotland's Peter Higgs, who picked up the award in physics for first contemplating the existence of the subatomic Higgs boson particle, even though it was the least surprising announcement of a physics prize in decades.

The chemistry prize came on Wednesday, awarded to U.S. scientists Michael Levitt and Arieh Warshel, along with Martin Karplus of France's Université de Strasbourg and Harvard. It will be followed by the peace, literature, and economics prizes. Headlines will celebrate each one. (There is even a traditional parody: see "2013 Ig Nobels Honor Research on Beer Goggles, Cows Ready to Be Tipped.")

Why do we care about the Nobel Prize? Since 1901, the awards have been announced annually by the Swedish Academy of Sciences and the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, as directed by the will of Swedish "dynamite king" Alfred Nobel, who died in 1897. But why do they get such fanfare?

"There are other prizes, but none are the Nobel Prize," says Thomson Reuters science analyst David Pendlebury, whose team yearly predicts which researchers might be in line for the award. "I'm always surprised by who they pick. But they do an outstanding, thorough job every time." (For the record, Pendlebury and many others this year had their money on Higgs and Englert, after Europe's CERN lab detected a Higgs-like particle in their data last year.)

A chart of Nobel prize-winners.

Unmatched Renown

"The Nobel has its rivals, but none combines the wealth and prestige of the prize, the range of its subjects, and its century-long record," the late science historian Burton Feldman wrote in The Nobel Prize: A History of Genius, Controversy, and Prestige. Feldman attributed the Nobel's "unmatched renown" to a combination of luck and design.

By design, the Nobel Prize drops a lot of Swedish kronor on its science awardees; some $1.25 million worth will be split among them this year. And it is awarded by royalty, handed over by King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden in a December 10 ceremony. Such a combination of money and prestige is tough to top in the modern world.

Feldman argued the Nobel was also lucky to be among the first awards that were international in scope, introduced just as the national rivalries and jealousies that would clash in World War I were reaching a fever pitch. "Science may speak a transnational language, but each year, as the new Nobels are announced, national scorecards and rivalries are anxiously scrutinized," Feldman wrote.

Why else do news stories about the Nobels begin with the national affiliation of the winners, which are carefully noted in the award announcements?

In the early years of the prize, the awards all went to Europeans, and after World War II, U.S. scientists took the lead, Pendlebury says. "Now, when I visit China, they ask, 'When will we have a first Nobel Prize in science?' I tell them it's coming." (A number of Chinese-born scientists have won Nobel Prizes for work done as citizens elsewhere.)

View Images
Marie Curie in her Paris laboratory.

Madame Curie, Celebrity

Both nationalism and celebrity played a role in boosting the prestige of the Nobel Prize in physics. The prize didn't get much attention until the Curies, Marie and Pierre, won the award in 1903. Marie Curie coined the word "radioactive" and remains one of the best-known scientists in history. It was the first prize that went to French scientists. (See "Start Researching: Marie Curie.")

"Marie Curie's 1903 Nobel for physics created two stars: Curie herself and the science Nobels," says Sharon McGrayne, author of Nobel Prize Women in Science: Their Lives, Struggles and Momentous Discoveries. Until then, the press had covered the literature and peace awards, but physics, chemistry, and medicine seemed too esoteric for news coverage, McGrayne says. "So was radioactivity. But radium—which ironically she would not get a Nobel for until 1911—was glamorous, expensive, a possible cure against cancer, and almost magical as it changed one element into another and produced what seemed like an inexhaustible supply of energy."

The world press had discovered a "rags-to-riches story" in the Curies, Feldman wrote, where penniless scientists cooked up scientific discoveries on an iron stove in a shabby alleyway while tending to an infant.

"Marie Curie herself symbolized the selfless pursuit of science, its humanitarian benefits, and the triumph of the lone individual against impossible odds," McGrayne says. "What more could anyone want? By the end of 1903, Marie was the world's most famous scientist, and the science Nobels were made."

Voila, the cult of the celebrity scientist was born, as journalists "began to feature the personalities behind the prizes," Feldman wrote. A whiff of scandal in Curie's 1911 prize--over her involvement as a widow in an affair with physicist Paul Langevin--only added to the drama.

The Nobel Prize given in 1922 to Einstein increased his stature as a world figure and cemented the portrayal of Nobel Prize winners as heroes and celebrities worthy of notice, McGrayne adds.

Nobel Dreams

"The Curie story had also demonstrated that the Nobel Prizes had been born at a very lucky time," Feldman noted, a time when international science and literature was becoming "modern" and too specialized for the public to judge without some arbiter handing out the laurels. DNA, the nuclear bomb, and cloning may be hard to comprehend, but everyone understands that "these sciences embody vast and revolutionary might of an uncertain kind," Feldman wrote.

Still, after more than a century of prominence, the strictures of the Nobel Prize-- each one given to no more than three living individuals for specific achievements--seem increasingly unsuitable to the ways of modern science. "The Nobel Prize Is Really Annoying," wrote Caltech physicist Sean Carroll this week on his Preposterous Universe blog. At least five other scientists, four of them living, cooked up the idea of the Higgs boson, he says, and deserve some credit.

Modern scientists often work in massive teams, whether on the Human Genome Project or at CERN, the European lab that experimentally verified the Higgs particle's existence last year. Pendlebury suggests that the science prizes ought to consider making awards to institutions rather than to specific individuals, and he cites the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as a precedent.

In any case, McGrayne isn't so sure that regular people are paying attention to the Nobel Prizes anymore, despite the annual news coverage of their announcement.

"Academics compete for it. Institutions 'buy' scientists they've heard are in the running for prizes. Institutions list the number of Nobel Prizes they have on staff," McGrayne said by email. "But this doesn't sound to me like the kind of mass-magazine hero worship that Curie got." When Marie Curie arrived by ship in New York City in 1921, she was flooded by newspaper reporters, and housewives nationwide donated money to buy radium for her institute.

"She's still the only woman scientist that most people can name," McGrayne says. "Do we even know the names of recent winners?"

Follow Dan Vergano on Twitter.