Monday, October 15, 2007

Nobel Silly Season

For a number of years now I think of early October as Nobel season. With the prizes often come two rounds of silliness.

The fun silliness are the Ig Nobel prizes. Very silly, the humor is often juvenile, but they are also fun, poking fun at research on the fringe in one way or another. I've attended one ceremony and it is worth doing once (more if you enjoy it the first time).

The ridiculous silliness involves various media reports treating the geography of science Nobel prize awards as some sort of barometer of the state of science in those regions. A year or so ago Nature was moaning over the lack of European laureates. I can't find a link, but this year the talk was about the lack of American science Nobels (no, Al's Peace Award doesn't count as science!) and the dominance of Europeans. This was particularly absurd since 2 of the 3 physiology awardees did their work at American universities! Here is what appears to be Smithies' first mouse knockout paper, and the institution listed is U Wisconsin. Capecchi's came from U Utah.

But even if all the Nobels went to researchers at Lilliput, that would be useless for judging the state of science anywhere. Nobels generally go for work done many years before -- so if they say anything, it would be about the state of science 1-2 decades ago -- and they are hardly useful for that. The Nobel prizes are great opportunities to learn about top notch research, but they are just an idiosyncratic sampler, not a representative sample.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What strikes me as even more silly are accusations of antiamericanism or even antisemitism (seen at
Gerard Harbison's blog
I am not an expert in surface chemistry and in no position to evaluate the contributions of Ertl and Somorjai, but I cannot remember a single Nobel season without anybody complaining that scientist X should also have been included. I guess this is pretty normal. But calling this antisemitism - give me a break!