The Nobel art of picking winners

The awarding of the 1995 prizes has gone smoothly ... so far. That's just the way they like it in Stockholm, explains Paul Vallely

Two down, four to go, and all safe so far. There was universal acclaim yesterday in the scientific world when the Nobel Prize for Medicine, worth $1m this year, was won by two Americans and a German for their pioneering work on the development of embryos. Working with the tiny fruit fly, they have discovered how genes control the formation of organs - which could have significant implications in understanding the causes of congenital malformations in human beings.

Cheers all round then, as there were last week when the man known throughout Ireland as Seamus Famous was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Today comes the Nobel Prize for Economics, with the physics and chemistry prizes tomorrow and the peace prize on Friday. They will be awarded "to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind", to quote from the will of the man who left the money for the annual awards, Alfred Bernhard Nobel, the Swedish chemist, engineer, industrialist and pacifist inventor of dynamite.

The judges at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (who judge physics, chemistry and economics), the Royal Caroline Medico-Chirurgical Institute (physiology or medicine), the Swedish Academy of Letters (literature) and the Norwegian Nobel Committee (peace) will be pleased if the next four prove as uncontroversial. For this year's prize for medicine was announced against a storm of controversy in the prize's homeland, where a leading newspaper last month reported that a previous medicine prize had been fixed by a pharmaceutical company.

The newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, alleged that Rita Levi-Montalcini won in 1986, for her discovery of nerve growth factors, because of an elaborate campaign by her employer, the Italian drug firm Fidia. It claimed the company developed ties with a key member of the awarding body, including giving him a small prize and paying for a trip for his wife. Academy officials rebutted the account, attacking the newspaper, which it claimed had "put together unrelated facts to make a story" and pointing out that the judges' choice was validated by the reaction of the scientific community, whose members warmly applauded the selection.

But though most observers accept the judges' explanation, the affair has sparked a debate about the independence of the secretive medicine prize committee. The Internet has been abuzz with all manner of unsubstantiated speculation. Nobel judges, like all top scientists, are increasingly intertwined with industry over research money and support, said one of the more moderate voices, PC Jersild, a Swedish medical ethicist. Medical and pharmaceutical industries provide career paths for scientists and pay for conferences and research at universities, he said, which "creates a network of interdependence."

All of this is rather new. The Nobel prize has become the ultimate accolade in the sciences precisely because it is almost always awarded to the right people. Of course there are the odd exceptions, as in 1974 when the prize for physics was won by the Cambridge astrophysicist Antony Hewish for his discovery of a new class of stars, pulsars. "Some felt it unfair," says John Maddox, the editor of the prestigious science journal Nature, "because, though Hewish was director of the project, it was a research assistant, Jocelyn Bell, who did the actual work. It has to be said she has behaved with extraordinary composure ever since."

Then there was the case of Fred Hoyle, acknowledged by many in the scientific community as having done the key thinking on the atomic nuclear synthesis which takes place in the Sun and other stars. But it was his co-worker William Fowler who won the prize in 1983. "One of the things the Nobel committee does not like is controversy," says Maddox, "and Hoyle had gained a reputation as a hothead for walking out of Cambridge, where he was professor, in a row over an appointment." He also posited the idea that life had arrived on Earth from outer space, which seemed "unnecessarily nutty".

But these are the exceptions - unlike the awards of the Nobel prizes for literature and for peace, which have both been frequently criticised. The difference lies in the nature of the disciplines, which is something the founder of the prizes failed to spot. Nobel himself achieved his reputation in scientific disciplines. In 1865 he invented the blasting cap, a device for detonating explosives, which was hailed by his peers as the greatest advance in the science of explosives since the discovery of black powder. Two years later he came up with dynamite.

Because science is an exact discipline it is relatively easy to measure success, especially if you wait for peer approbation before awarding a prize, which is what the Nobel committees often do - William Fowler waited nearly 30 years for his and Peyton Rous, who discovered a cancer virus in 1903, waited 66 years for his.

The laureates are selected from nominations made by senior figures in each field. Deliberation and voting are secret at all stages, and the judges brook no appeal from the disappointed or the outraged.

They can cope with that in the sciences. But literature and peace are different creatures altogether. Nobel's expertise here was only that of the dilettante - in his youth he had written poetry in English and the beginnings of a novel were found among his papers after his death. There was something equally amateurish about his pacifism, which he seems to have acquired from an Austrian baroness friend who was also a novelist manque - the man who invented dynamite hoped that its destructive powers would bring about an end to wars. Literary worth and the nature of peace are something altogether more subjective.

The prize for literature has been dogged by accusations of favouritism - the French, for some reason, won it 11 times early on. More recently there have been allegations of political opportunism. Heaney, some say, gets it now because it is timely in the Irish peace process, just as Nadine Gordimer got it to mark the death of apartheid and Wole Soyinka to bolster democracy in Nigeria. Most controversial have been the long lists of the great who were not honoured - Thomas Hardy, James Joyce and Graham Greene (blocked, it is said, by one embittered Academician). Set against that is the long list of laureate nonentities whom history has forgotten. And then there are those - like Jean-Paul Sartre and Boris Pasternak - who declined it for political reasons or those who were instructed by their governments to refuse it. Hitler forbad all Germans to accept Nobel prizes from 1937 after the peace prize was awarded to a German pacifist in 1935 - something which the dictator interpreted as an affront to him.

Peace, naturally, is the most tumultuously controversial of all the prizes. Given the nature of conflict, an award to anyone instrumental in bringing about its end is bound to irritate those with vested interests in its preservation. Nowhere is this more so than when the winners have been involved in the fighting themselves.

Bitter laughter greeted the award to the two protagonists in the Vietnam War, Henry Kissinger and the North Vietnamese leader Le Duc Tho. There was no rejoicing in certain quarters when Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat won it for the start of the Middle East peace process in 1978 or, more recently, when it was shared by Messrs Arafat, Peres and Rabin.

The New Right even objected when it went in 1992 to the Guatemalan Indian- rights activist Rigoberta Menchu, whose father, mother and brother had been killed while protesting about human-rights abuses by the military.

The award of the literature prize to Seamus Heaney probably means that the peace prize will not go this year to Gerry Adams and John Hume. But you never can tell. Everything seems to be going a bit too smoothly so far.

Science

Winners

Albert Einstein: did not win it for his most famous research into relativity. Won the physics prize in 1921 for the photoelectric effect, which was considered more important, and more experimental, in those days

William Shockley: American who shared Nobel physics prize in 1956 for his development of the transistor. Afterwards worked on the genetics of race

Fred Sanger: British biochemist who won chemistry Nobel prize twice: once in 1958 for his determination of the structure of the insulin molecule and as a joint winner in 1980 for the determination of base sequences in nucleic acids

Sir Alexander Fleming: Briton who won physiology or medicine prize in 1945 for his discovery of penicillin. He made the initial observations, but Ernst Chain and Howard Florey developed the first antibiotic

Losers

Fred Hoyle: British astronomer and ardent opponent of the Big Bang theory who proposed a theory on the formation of atoms within stars. His criticism of the Nobel committee jeopardised his chances of winning

Robert Edwards and Patrick Steptoe (left): pioneered in-vitro fertilisation, culminating in the birth of the first test-tube child, Louise Brown, in 1978. Steptoe has since died and the prize is not awarded posthumously

Stephen Hawking: the best-known cosmologist in Britain and probably the world. He will probably never receive a Nobel because his work is too theoretical. Is he too famous for a Nobel?

Harry Kroto: Sussex university chemist who discovered a new form of carbon. This molecule is in the shape of a ball and its existence has opened up a whole new field of chemistry. Kroto could still win it, but time may be running out

Peace

Winners: Desmond Tutu: former Bishop of Johannesburg, won in 1983 for improvement of community relations in South Africa

Losers: Robert Schuman: Frenchman who failed to win despite his devotion to setting up the forerunner of the European Union and efforts at post-war Franco-German reconciliation

Literature

Winners: Samuel Beckett: Irish writer won in 1969 for his innovative and inspired writing which, according to the committee, uplifted "destitute" modern man

Losers: Leo Tolstoy: Russian author who said he was "very glad" not to win the prize. The Academy was, in 1901, too conservative to countenance Tolstoy's avant-garde writing. The prize was to be awarded for idealistic work: Tolstoy didn't fit the bill

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