Wow … I’m glad I wasn’t on the Nobel Prize administration team this morning. Just after announcing that this year’s prize in medicine or physiology was being awarded to three immunologists, the committee learned that one of the three immunologists had died last Friday. Since the rules state that the prize is not supposed to be awarded posthumously, this was a major OOPS … or was it?
Later on in the day, the Nobel organizers announced that the late Ralph Steinman would remain a Nobel laureate, since the award-givers were acting in good faith on the assumption that Steinman was still alive. (Additional coverage of this from Science magazine, from the New York Times, from Nature, and from the Guardian (UK).)
Personally, I think the Nobel committee made the right call. It seems clear that the judges believed that they were awarding the prize to three living scientists, as the rules stipulate, and to “dis-award” the prize at this point would look tremendously churlish. Of course, it’s also terribly sad that Dr. Steinman never knew that he won the Nobel Prize.
Maybe this will be a wake-up call to the folks in Stockholm that they really ought to reduce the lag time between some useful discoveries and their recognition by Nobels — in other words, honor more deserving scientists before they get to be frail and/or dying of terminal diseases. Afraid of making some blooper? Well, there have already been a few controversies — such as the 1949 Nobel for the prefrontal leucotomy, better known as the now-discredited lobotomy. Hey, we’re all human. It was actually rather refreshing to see last year’s physics Nobel go to two researchers — one in his early 50s, the other in his late 30s — working on a topic of much current scientific and engineering interest, namely graphene.
Speaking of physics … who will win that physics Nobel tomorrow? The Guardian, while reviewing one prognostication that Asian scientists will soon start to crowd out Americans in the prize race, mentioned Sajeev John of Canada and Eli Yablonovitch of the United States as possible winners for photonics. (Yay for photonics!) Thomson Reuters also predicted the pair of John and Yablonovitch (maybe that’s where the Guardian got that notion) and, alternatively, the trio of Alain Aspect, John F. Clausner, and Anton Zeilinger for their studies of Bell’s inequalities and quantum entanglement. I’ve heard two of the three (Aspect and Zeilinger) speak at OSA meetings over the years. (Thomson Reuters also suggested a solid-state physicist from Japan.)
I’d also like to ask: What better way to commemorate the centenary of Marie Curie’s second Nobel Prize (granted, the one in chemistry) than to include a woman among the Nobel laureates in physics? Only two women have won Nobels in physics — Marie Curie in 1903 and Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963. (Chemistry isn’t doing that much better, with only four female laureates, including Ada Yonath in 2009.)
I could start naming names of female physicists, but it’s getting late. Only a few hours to go before the winner(s) is/are announced….