Why Didn't They Win? 10 Huge Discoveries Without a Nobel Prize

National Geographic science writers, bloggers, and editors pick groundbreaking advances and inventions that should have won a Nobel.

The 2014 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine has gone to three scientists who discovered brain cells that help us stay oriented—our "inner GPS." Announced Monday, the award kicks off the annual salute to human accomplishment that is Nobel week, including Friday's announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize. (See: "Nobel Prize a Reminder of How the Brain Can Surprise Us.")

The ritual of Nobel speculation, particularly about who will win the three science prizes, got the editors at National Geographic thinking: What amazing discoveries haven't won? We asked our Phenomena science bloggers, science editors, and select contributors to pick their favorite advance or invention that was passed over.

Here are their ten picks for discoveries and inventions that haven't won a Nobel, but sorely deserve one.

The World Wide Web

When the National Geographic folks asked what discovery deserves the Nobel Prize but never won, my first instinct was to ask my followers on Twitter. After they gave me a few candidates, I Googled "Velcro" and "dark matter" and "embryonic stem cells" and read about these discoveries.

Then it occurred to me: What could be more deserving of the Nobel Prize than the invention I had so relied on to learn about inventions?


Beginning in the 1960s, researchers in the U.S. federal government created computer communication networks that would evolve into the Internet. But I'd give the Nobel to British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee, who in 1989 proposed the idea for the World Wide Web and in 1990 created the first website (a page describing the Web).

The Web democratizes information, whether dumb videos of dancing cats or brave tweets from the Arab Spring. And information is power.

—Virginia Hughes, Phenomena blog: Only Human

The First Genome

A lot of people wonder why there has been no Nobel Prize for one of science's most humongous achievements: the completion of the human genome in 2001. Perhaps it's the sheer humongousness. For all its importance, the human genome wasn't a discovery or an invention—it was an engineering project, requiring the scaling up of automated DNA sequencing to industrial proportions. As Human Genome Project scientist Eric Lander said at the time, "You don't get a Nobel Prize for turning a crank."

One might get a Prize, however, for inventing the crank in the first place. Six years before the human genome, Craig Venter and his colleagues had shown that automated DNA sequencing and an assembly technique called whole genome shotgun could be combined to read out the entire code of a free-living organism, the bacterium Haemophilus influenzae. The methods employed are essentially the same as the ones Venter's private company later scaled up to sequence the fruit fly and human genomes, and the same as what other labs have subsequently employed to crank out the codes of hundreds of other species. The Nobel committee would be hard pressed to select the three scientists most responsible for this first triumph of genomics. But Venter should be among them.

—Jamie Shreeve, National Geographic executive editor for science

Black Hole Death

One night in 1970 Stephen Hawking was climbing into bed when he had an idea that filled him with what he later described as a "moment of ecstasy."

He thought that black holes, previously assumed to be more or less immortal, could instead slowly lose mass and eventually evaporate, exploding in a flash of gamma rays.

The problem was that there was no way to verify the idea. Black holes are too long-lived to be observed today in their death throes.

Yet Hawking's black hole research is now firmly embedded in theoretical physics. It united relativity (a classical theory, in which everything is smooth as silk) with quantum mechanics (in which everything is grainy) and spurred progress in information theory.

Hawking probably would have won the prize had nature provided observational confirmation. But that won¹t happen for billions of years, not until the first star-size black holes start exploding.

—Timothy Ferris, National Geographic contributor and author of The Science of Liberty

The Periodic Table

I'd like to take us back to the basics. And what is more basic, more fundamental, more substantial than the identification of the chemical elements?

The periodic table is no mere org chart; it reveals the underlying order of protons, neutrons, and electrons that lie at the heart of all matter. Its neat columns and rows have predicted elements before they were found, and even their properties. (Related: "Element Hunters.")

It seems unthinkable that such a breakthrough wouldn't win science's top honor, but that's exactly what happened at the first Nobel presentations in 1901. The chemistry prize went to Jacobus H. van 't Hoff for pioneering work in physical chemistry. Compared with Hoff's work showing how elements linked and moved about, the periodic table published by Dmitri Mendeleev in 1869 must have looked a bit staid.

Mendeleev still had hope: He was nominated for a Nobel in 1905 and in 1906 but lost because a committee member thought his work was too old and well-known. The periodic table, it seemed, was a victim of its own success.

Instead the 1906 prize went to Henri Moisson for finding the element fluorine, right where the periodic table had said it would be.

The next year Mendeleev died, and with him the table's shot at a Nobel. Instead it became the most useful poster in science, hanging on laboratory walls for generations, and that will have to do.

—Erika Engelhaupt, National Geographic online science editor


The Lightbulb

As a fan of technologies whose days are now over—Jiffy Pop, newspapers, the iPhone—I'd be remiss in not calling for the long-overdue enshrinement of the lightbulb by giving it a Nobel in Physics.

Thomas Edison's humble invention—first patented by Joseph Swan in the United Kingdom but made practical by Edison—built the modern economy (and sleep deficits), creating tremendous demand for the electricity that so shapes our existence today.

Edison died in 1931 with no Nobel, not even for the lightbulb—the very symbol of scientific inspiration. It was a historic injustice. Alfred Nobel included inventions and inventors in references to the award in his will, but prize judges are prone to draping their kronor on impracticalities such as the runaway expansion of the universe or esoteric "God" particles that exist only to infuriate physicists with their press-friendly nicknames.

Instead, let there be lightbulbs celebrated by the Nobel, the way the inventor of dynamite would have wanted.

—Dan Vergano, National Geographic science writer

The Quark

Murray Gell-Mann won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1969 "for his contributions and discoveries concerning the classification of elementary particles and their interactions."

But no prize has been awarded specifically recognizing the idea he's most renowned for: the quark. These tiniest constituents of matter join to form protons, neutrons, and other particles. Their discovery (using pencil and paper, the theoretical physicist's most powerful tools) led to a deeper understanding of the physical world.

The wording of the citation was vague enough that Gell-Mann's Nobel could be considered a kind of lifetime-achievement award, though he was then only 40.

But at the time, evidence for quarks, which he had proposed five years earlier, was still ambiguous and controversial. The presentation speech for the prize glided right past it, and some physicists have suggested that he deserves a second Nobel. It should also go to George Zweig, who independently came up with the same idea, and James Bjorken, for making sense of the experiments that are now accepted as clinching the case.

—George Johnson, National Geographic contributor and author of Strange Beauty

Modern Evolutionary Synthesis

When the first Nobel Prizes were handed out in 1901, evolutionary biology was still a young science.

Biologists at the time knew little about the nitty-gritty details of how life changed over generations. Some even questioned natural selection and other fundamental concepts of Darwin's theory of evolution.

Between the 1920s and 1950s, a group of scientists—geneticists, naturalists, paleontologists—recognized how mutations could arise, spread, and act as the raw materials for evolution. This new view of life came to be known as the modern synthesis. Their work opened the way for today's remarkable advances in our knowledge of life's history.

—Carl Zimmer, Phenomena blog: The Loom

Dark Matter

If we're digging into history, there are many astronomical discoveries worthy of a Nobel Prize, including Kepler's laws of planetary motion, the early 20th-century determination that the universe is expanding, and the classification of stars by their spectral fingerprints. But the discovery of dark matter is the modern achievement that has perhaps been most grossly overlooked by the Nobel Prize committee.

In the 1970s Vera Rubin and Kent Ford saw that stars at the edges of galaxies moved as quickly as the stars near the middle—in other words, these galaxies were rotating so fast that they should be flying apart ... unless something invisible was contributing to the gravity holding them together.

That something invisible has come to be known as dark matter—a mysterious substance comprising as much as 90 percent of the mass in the universe. It doesn't emit or reflect light or interact with ordinary matter in any way.

Because of its stealthy, slippery nature, the dark matter particle itself has remained elusive. In other words, scientists aren't sure what this stuff is, exactly. And that uncertainty may be why the discovery hasn't been recognized by the Nobel committee, even though the 2011 physics prize went to a similarly enigmatic cosmological discovery.

—Nadia Drake, Phenomena blog: No Place Like Home

Tree of Life

At a time when scientists were classifying microbes based on their shapes, Carl Woese pioneered a way to divine the relationships between them by comparing their genes.

His method clarified the existence of a previously unrecognised domain of life, the microscopic Archaea. Scientists have used his techniques to catalog the smorgasbord of microbes that live in our bodies and influence our health and to chart the evolutionary relationships of organisms both large and small. (Related: "Seeing the Branches for the Tree."


Thanks to Woese, the tree of life gained a third great trunk, more solid branches, and new twigs. Woese died in 2012, and Nobels cannot be awarded posthumously, but it's absurd that someone who unveiled the full extent of life should be denied by something as trivial as death.

—Ed Yong, Phenomena blog: Not Exactly Rocket Science

Dinosaur Renaissance

In 1969 the Yale University paleontologist John Ostrom named one of the most important species ever found. He called the animal—a 110-million-year-old dinosaur—Deinonychus, or "terrible claw." This saurian was a human-size predator with grasping hands and a sickle claw held off the ground on a hyperextendible toe.

More important, Ostrom knew Deinonychus was vastly different from the standard image of dinosaurs as slow, stupid, swamp-dwelling monsters. Deinonychus, he argued, was an agile, and possibly social, hunter that must have had a very active lifestyle. This proposal helped launch the "dinosaur renaissance" that's still bearing scientific fruit today.

Unfortunately, there's no Nobel Prize for paleontology or any other branch of natural history, and Deinonychus has not gotten its due.

—Brian Switek, Phenomena blog: Laelaps

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