They can go to a maximum of three people, and they can't be awarded posthumously, but that wasn't part of Alfred Nobel's original vision
Each October, chemists, physicians, poets, physicists, and peacemakers delight in what has become almost a sacramental ritual for intellectuals: the annual Nobel Prize announcements. Like nature itself, the well-choreographed and publicized set of rituals surrounding the prize comes complete with its own distinct seasons: the season of “revelation,” experienced this week, and the season of “coronation”—the awards ceremony, held annually on December 10, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death.
But there is a lesser-known Nobel season as well: the season of “nomination,” an epoch which closes in the dead of winter, at midnight in Stockholm on January 31 each year. This marks the date by which nominators must submit their Nobel Prize nominations. There is no grace period; it is never postponed, and there is no allowance for nominators who tarry.
This can have problematic consequences. In 2009, for example, President Barack Obama had been on the job for only 11 days when nomination season ended. Some said he hadn’t even had time to measure the proverbial drapes in the Oval Office, let alone to have reduced “the world’s standing armies”—the criterion Nobel’s will stipulated for the Peace prize. But he won the Peace Prize that year nevertheless. His nomination was perfectly in line with the Prize committee’s technical requirements; it had beaten the deadline.
The January deadline came into play with a twinge of sadness this week as the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics was announced. The press releaseissued by the Nobel Prize committee states that Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne, and Barry Barish were rewarded "for decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves.” It goes on to say that “On 14 September 2015, the universe's gravitational waves were observed for the very first time. The waves, which were predicted by Albert Einstein a hundred years ago, came from a collision between two black holes.” While the waves, traveling at lightspeed, took 1.3 billion years to reach LIGO’s twin detectors, it was the far briefer span of two weeks that fundamentally altered the calculus of this year’s prize.
LIGO’s detectors had fortuitously come online only weeks before catching the first gravitational wave signals on that fateful September day. After months of painstaking analysis by more than 1,000 members of the consortium, the team was finally ready to go forward and make their announcement public, which they did on 11 February 2016. Whispers of a Nobel began immediately, and eight months later, as Nobel revelation season approached, those whispers intensified.
Writing in Science in October 2016, Adrian Cho—unaware LIGO’s February announcement had missed the nomination deadline—said “Next week, the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physics will be announced, and many scientists expect it to honor the detection of ripples in space called gravitational waves, reported in February. If other prizes are a guide, the Nobel will go to the troika of physicists who 32 years ago conceived of LIGO, the duo of giant detectors responsible for the discovery: Rainer Weiss of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, and Ronald Drever and Kip Thorne of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena. But some influential physicists, including previous Nobel laureates, say the prize, which can be split three ways at most, should include somebody else: Barry Barish.”
At the time, Barish, who this week shared one-quarter of the 2017 prize for his decisive role in LIGO, agreed that Weiss, Drever, and Thorne deserved science’s highest accolade. Yet, evidently equally unaware of the January 31 nomination deadline, he added a note regarding the due diligence of the committee: “If they wait a year and give it to these three guys, at least I’ll feel that they thought about it,” he says. “If they decide [to give it to them] this October, I’ll have more bad feelings because they won’t have done their homework.”
But if the committee had recognized the LIGO discovery that year, why couldn’t Barish have been included as well. Why a trio and not a quartet? This restriction comes from a stipulation that a maximum of three scientists can share a prize—a rule added by the Nobel committee years after the awards were established in Alfred Nobel’s will. In fact, the will requires that the prizes be given to “the person…”—that’s “person,” in the singular—whose discovery or invention has provided “the greatest benefit to mankind.” The committee jettisoned that requirement 1902, the prize’s second year, according to science historian Elizabeth Crawford in her book The Beginnings of the Nobel Institution: The Science Prizes, 1901-1915.
Had LIGO beaten the 31 January 2016 deadline, even Barish seemed to agree that he might have been justifiably lost a share of last year’s Nobel Prize due to the “rule of three.” Early this year, the same headaches seemed likely for the 2017 Nobel Prize committee—how to choose three of the four?
Sadly, in March 2017, their dilemma was resolved. The death of Ron Drever permanently eliminated him from Nobel consideration thanks to the Nobel Foundation’s statutes, which forbid posthumous awards. The posthumous stipulation, however, like the restriction to a maximum of three winners is not found anywhere in Alfred’s will. It was enacted 73 years after the first prizes.
While most see the Nobel Prizes as an inspirational celebration of the human mind—the one chance for basic science to share the spotlight on a par with Hollywood celebrities, for at least a week—others feel it has some detrimental effects on the portrayal of science. The Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees, said this week that the three new laureates were "outstanding individuals whose contributions were distinctive and complementary.” But he also added: "Of course LIGO’s success was owed to literally hundreds of dedicated scientists and engineers. The fact that the Nobel committee refuses to make group awards is causing them increasingly frequent problems—and giving a misleading and unfair impression of how a lot of science is actually done."
Worse yet, younger scientists, are becoming disillusioned by the lack of racial and gender diversity of the winners. Some, like Matthew Francis, say it might be time to retire the Nobels entirely, saying that they are “not an adequate reflection of real science, and they reinforce the worst aspects of the culture of science….Maybe we should dump 'em and start over."
There have long been calls for Nobel Prize reform. Many are dismayed when scientists treat the rules of the Nobel Prize as inviolable as laws of nature itself. These voices, like distant signals from in-spiraling black holes, may prove too loud for the Nobel committees to continue to ignore. After all, we are living in a populist era where long-held traditions and institutions are coming under intense scrutiny. Some institutions are responding with reform, others remain steadfast, committed to maintaining their outdated rules.
No one questions the appropriateness of this weeks’ winners. Yet it is impossible to disregard how the Nobel committee solved one problem—forbidding awards to more than three winners—by virtue of another arbitrary prohibition: the one that forbids posthumous prizes. In an era increasingly concerned with transparency and fairness, it will be hard not to heed the clarion calls for substantive reform.
Instead of boycott or retirement, modest reforms should take place. One proposal would be to give the first Nobel Prize in physics intentionallyawarded posthumously to Vera Rubin for her indisputable discovery of dark matter.
Imagine the statement that would make!
The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.
Brian Keating is an astrophysicist and professor at the University of California San Diego. He and his collaborators have built numerous cosmic microwave background experiments at the South Pole, Antarctica and in the Atacama Desert of Chile. Keating is a Fellow of the American Physical Society and is the author of Losing the Nobel Prize, to be published by W.W. Norton in April 2018.