A trio of new books provides a spectrum of perspectives on one of the most esteemed honors in the world – the Nobel Prize.
Readers of these diverse works are taken through detailed and fascinating stories of the origins, expectations and failures of the prizes, with Unni Turrettini taking on the peace prize in Betraying the Nobel, Brian Keating writing about the physics prize in Losing the Nobel Prize, and my book, Boneheads and Brainiacs, on the Nobel Prize in medicine.
Each author has his or her own view of the intentions of the prize benefactor Alfred Nobel, whose second claim to fame is that of the inventor of dynamite. Yet we all agree there have been wide deviations from explicit criteria for the prizes that Nobel stipulated in scrawling longhand in his last will.
“…the Nobel Peace Prize as we know it is corrupt at its core.”
In Betraying the Nobel: The Secrets and Corruption Behind the Nobel Peace Prize, the reader learns that Peace Prize laureates are chosen by a committee of politicians elected by the Norwegian Parliament, with funding supplemented by the state and private corporations, and from a country that is itself engaged in international arms dealing. Turrettini’s straightforward conversational style of writing pulls one into the sometimes appalling stories of the international forces at work behind each years’ selection, which not only has consequences for individuals and discreet regions, but affects us all in this world community. The book recounts the real world peace statistics (or lack thereof) effected by the individuals who have been awarded, allowing the reader to come their own conclusions regarding the integrity of the prize.
“The Nobel Prize today is a reward mechanism that discourages collaboration, celebrates authority, and sets up a rat race where claim-staking, speed and greed are encouraged…”
Brain Keating has studied the universe from various perches on the planet, most often found in his offices at UC San Diego but he’s also been seen in Antarctica and in Chile's Atacama Desert. In Losing the Nobel Prize: A Story of Cosmology, Ambition, and the Perils of Science's Highest Honor, the author frankly shares intimate details of his own struggles to attain Nobel recognition. Keating relates the winding story of cosmological discoveries (and dead ends) of last 400 years, successfully keeping it understandable to a lay person by his everyday examples. (Let’s say you have a thermos, and you want to cool it down to almost the temperature of outer space…) Keating describes how a myriad of manmade forces, such as the peculiarities of Nobel Prize criteria and selection rules, unpredictable academic politics, and shortsighted government funding have profound impacts on scientific approaches, successes and failures. Although one may think the origins of the universe are nobody’s business, the way Keating tells it, it might just impart to the reader a sense of personal responsibility to support the pursuit of pure scientific endeavors, Nobel Prizes be damned.
“Even the greatest minds in medicine have been terribly wrong.”
In Boneheads and Brainiacs: Heroes and Scoundrels of the Nobel Prize in Medicine, the reader learns that the inventor of the lobotomy won a Nobel Prize for destroying his patients' brains. Another Nobel laureate thought malaria would cure syphilis. The discoverer of the basis of allergic reactions also researched the spirit world and ESP. A pioneer of organ transplants was an ardent eugenicist, while the founder of sports physiology heroically spoke out against Nazism. Boneheads and Brainiacs profiles the winners of the Nobel Prize in Medicine from 1901 to 1950―a surprisingly diverse group of racists, cranks, and opportunists, as well as heroes, geniuses, and selfless benefactors of humanity. Forget all the ivory tower stereotypes of white-coated doctors finding miracle cures. This highly entertaining read reveals the messy human reality behind medical progress.
All three authors manage to make the lofty more humble, and the ideal closer to human reality.
They are likely to leave the reader with a dose of healthy skepticism, while at the same time gaining a sense of enhanced personal responsibility toward achieving world peace and promoting ethical science for the greatest good.
Moira Dolan, MD