China, Norway and the continuing Peace Prize row

So far, this blog has looked at coverage of his year’s Nobel Prizes, but there’s been a notable lack of coverage for one prize that is worth highlighting here.

While news spread far and wide of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman for “their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work”, full marks to The Atlantic for noticing that the Chinese state news agency, Xinhua, only ran a three-paragraph brief on the news. Other major Chinese sites didn’t cover the news at all (see here, here and here).

If you recall, last year’s Peace Prize went to imprisoned dissident Chinese writer and human rights advocate Liu Xiaobo. Neither Liu nor his wife, Liu Xia, were allowed to attend the prize ceremony last December in Oslo — the medal placed on an empty chair providing one of the most defining images of last year’s awards.

Any idea the Peace Prize Committee had in their Award Ceremony speech that highlighting the connection between human rights and peace would provide “a prerequisite for the “fraternity between nations, of which Alfred Nobel wrote in his will” has not come to fruition. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Chinese officials blasted the Nobel committee for awarding the prize to a convicted man who they say was trying to subvert the Chinese government. The Confucius Prize was set up as a domestic-based alternative but as I noted before its future already appears to be in doubt. Though the Norwegian Nobel Committee operates independently from the government, diplomatic ties between China and Norway, which were chilly even before the announcement in 2009 (according to the published cables from WikiLeaks), have become deep frozen – trade rules over salmon being the latest episode in this saga.

Meanwhile, Liu is still in jail, serving out an 11-year sentence. Liu Xia, who had enjoyed relative freedom even after her husband was sentenced in December 2009, was placed under unofficial house arrest in Beijing shortly after the 2010 Peace Prize announcement, where she still remains.

“As far as I know, the way she is treated is unprecedented in the history of the Nobel Peace Prize,” Norwegian Nobel Committee secretary Geir Lundestad told Associated Press. “Her situation is extremely regrettable.”

The day of the 2011 Peace Prize announcement was described as an “awkward anniversary in China” by Evan Osnos on the New Yorker blog. As Osnos notes, the country’s obsession with the Nobel Prizes runs to the extent that the title of a science programme on Chinese state television a few years ago was entitled “How far are we from a Nobel Prize?

The term “China’s Nobel complex” was coined by Professor Julia Lovell to define the paradox that the country faces since re-entering the international community in the 1980s. China sees Nobel Prizes like Olympic gold medals, demonstrating global recognition as a modern world power, yet the authorities resent seeking validation from outsiders. This resentment grows to anger when the state perceives outsiders to be exploiting “Western” values to discredit their history and traditions, as was the case with the 2010 Peace Prize, and also with the 2000 Literature Prize to the dissident writer Gao Xingjian.

It’s an obsession I have experienced first-hand. As an editor at Nature Publishing Group who helped to organize a conference series in China and who visited several laboratories, the burning question almost all senior academics wanted me to answer was what would it take to have a “homegrown Nobel Prize?” (My answer, rather weak I admit, was to say that while there might be the talent, you have to create and nurture a culture and environment similar to what you would find in so-called “Nobel-worthy” institutions.) My first experience of Nobel Week in December 2007 coincided with a visiting delegation from China, with the question foremost in their minds. Nobel committee members have come under fire for accepting paid-for trips to China, though a probe by the Swedish government anti-corruption body found no evidence of bribery, concluding that the prize selection process is too complex for any individual to have a significant influence.

Despite last year’s Peace Prize, China’s Nobel obsession hasn’t dimmed, reports Osnos. Over the past few months the state press has feverishly covered anything that can be associated with the Nobel name — from headlining this year’s Lasker Award to the Chinese scientist Tu Youyou as ‘America’s Nobel’, to reporting the opening of the recent Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting on Economic Sciences. And as far as I can tell, science laureates visiting China are still treated like celebrities, with lectures packed to the rafters, unlike similar lectures in say, the US and UK.

But any thought that China might concede some ground on the Peace Prize in pursuit of their Nobel dreams in science has received a rude shock in the last few days. Last week, Norway’s foreign minister, Jonas Gahr Støre wrote some conciliatory words in a full-page commentary in Norway’s leading business newspaper Dagens Næringsliv, saying that the Norwegian government has taken China’s angry reaction seriously, understands that they are upset, but hopes that moves can be made to restore relations. This olive branch offering was rejected by China yesterday; a statement from the Chinese embassy in Oslo saying that the Norwegian government “supported this wrong decision”, and that “we expect that the Norwegian side will make tangible efforts to restore and develop the bilateral relations.”

What form these “tangible efforts” could take isn’t clear. As this article notes, it could require an apology from the Norwegian government for supporting the Peace Prize, which would be an unprecedented move, or perhaps a statement of regret from the Norwegian government regarding China’s offence at Norway’s support for the prize. Whatever the outcome, it looks like China’s response to “losing face” over the Peace Prize is to push the Norwegian government towards a similar outcome.

The 2011 Nobel Prizes in quotes

“The decision to award the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to the late Ralph Steinman shall remain unchanged… The events that have occurred are unique and, to the best of our knowledge, are unprecedented in the history of the Nobel Prize… The decision to award the Nobel Prize to Ralph Steinman was made in good faith, based on the assumption that the Nobel Laureate was alive.”

Statement from the Nobel Foundation to confirm that Ralph Steinman would still be awarded the Medicine Prize, despite dying three days before the announcement was made.

 

“We got the first call from a reporter from Sweden, who asked me how I felt. And I said “How do I feel about what?” And he told me that we’d won the Prize and my wife, of course, rushed to the computer to check to see whether this was a hoax!”

Saul Perlmutter, 2011 Nobel Laureate in Physics, on not knowing he had been awarded the prize.

 

“The phone rang, it was 5:30, and it was Swedish-sounding people, and I knew they weren’t from Ikea.”

Adam Riess on being woken up by the call to tell him he had been awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics.

 

“The biggest day of my life, I am trending on the Australia twitter… but I am still behind Happy National Taco Day? I have a lot to learn.”

Brian Schuldt, 2011 Nobel Laureate in Physics, on Twitter (aka @cosmicpinot)

 

“Danny Shechtman is talking nonsense. There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists.”

Criticism Daniel Shechtman said he received from two-time Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling, who never accepted the findings that eventually led to the 2011 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

 

“2am in Haifa. What a day. If you’re a scientist and believe in your results, then fight for them. Even when Linus says you’re wrong. Danny”

Daniel Schechtman on Twitter (@danschechtman)

 

“Transtömer!”

Headline on the front page of the Culture section of Swedish daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter to celebrate the Stockholm-based poet’s Nobel Prize in Literature — the first Swedish Literature Prize since 1974.

 

“At first we had him down as a rank outsider but the committee have been known to spring a shock and punters the world over feel Dylan will be the beneficiary.”

Ladbrokes commenting on a rush of bets on Bob Dylan that brought his odds down from 100/1 to 5/1 favourite the day before the Literature Prize announcement.

 

“It sends out a message to the Arab world that you can’t ignore women if you want a democratic society.”

Thorbjørn Jagland, the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee during the 2011 Peace Prize announcement.

 

“Truly women have a place, truly women have a face, and truly the world has not been functioning well without the input, in every sphere, of women.”

Leymah Gbowee, 2011 Nobel Peace Laureate on the message she hopes her award will bring to the world.

 

“I feel very happy and I want to be like my mum in the future.”

Tawakul Karman’s 14-year-old daughter in response to the celebrations for the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.

 

“I’m not so sure it’s right to say we have worked together; it’s more that we have a series of continuing arguments many of which are still going on as I slowly persuade him of the error of his earlier positions.”

Christopher Sims on fellow Economics Laureate, Thomas Sargent, at a joint press conference.

 

 

“We are basically statistical historians”

Thomas Sargent, 2011 Economic Sciences Laureate with Sims, at the same press conference

2011 Prize in Economic Sciences goes to cause and effect in macroeconomics

The 2011 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel was awarded to Thomas Sargent and Christopher Sims “for their empirical research on cause and effect in the macroeconomy”.

The official background information for the public does a good job of explaining the achievements behind the prize, beginning as follows:

How are GDP and inflation affected by a temporary increase in the interest rate or a tax cut? What happens if a central bank makes a permanent change in its inflation target or a government modifies its objective for budgetary balance? This year’s Laureates in economic sciences, Thomas J. Sargent and Christopher A. Sims, have developed methods for answering these and many other questions regarding the causal relationship between economic policy and different macroeconomic variables such as GDP, inflation, employment and investments.

Perhaps, you’d prefer an explanation under 140 characters? Well, a summary was provided in tweet form by Tim Harford, the Undercover Economist at the Financial Times and author of Adapt.

If this has given you an appetite to learn more about the subject, I strongly recommend that you follow Tyler Cowan and Alex Tabbarok’s excellent coverage at Marginal Revolution. There you’ll find some background on the Laureates, context on the key achievements, and links to papers, presentations, videos and much more. If someone combined this approach with The Guardian’s live blog format, which posted reactions from experts in the field, you’d pretty much have my perfect one-stop-shop for Nobel coverage.

For now, though, I’ll leave the last word to someone who took a rather different slant on the news…

 

Could the Literature Prize result have been leaked?

The Swedish daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter has an intriguing article titled “The odds indicate a leak” about the betting in the run-up to yesterday’s Literature Prize. As I mentioned yesterday there was a rush in betting for Tomas Tranströmer just before his name was read out, but I hadn’t realised his odds had plunged from 13 to 1.66.

You can see the original article in Swedish here. Many thanks to Britt Warg for bringing this article to my attention, and for providing an English translation, which you can read below. (I’ve only included the relevant excerpts.)

This could, of course, have been due to a rush of domestic bets hoping for a home-grown favourite to scoop the prize. Or not. If I hear any more I’ll update this post.

The odds indicate a leak
Published today 14:16

The odds at the betting company Ladbrokes suggests a leak of the acknowledgement that the poet Tomas Tranströmer was to be awarded this year’s Nobel prize in Literature.

The betting changed significantly this morning and Tranströmer went high. That’s unusual, says Sofia Hjärtberg, press officer at Ladbrokes in Sweden.

For the whole week, Bob Dylan has topped the list at Ladbrokes. Then, a bid for Dylan would have given six times the money.

Tomas Tranströmer, on the other hand, had not been as ‘hot’. Up until Thursday morning, he had 13[/1] as odds.
But shortly after 9am (local time), people began to suspect something was wrong.
Suddenly the bids for Tomas Tranströmer started to flood in – they were both numerous and high. In an hour’s time, the odds had gone down from 13 to 1.66. 
– We have never seen such a change, says Sofia Hjärtberg.

 

Ladbrokes have been offering betting for the Literature Prize since 2003. Three years ago, when the Frenchman Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio received the prize, the company had to close the bidding as the bids for him literary exploded just a day or so before he was awarded the price.
– We felt something was wrong so we closed down the game.
No such drastic measures this year then?
– No, this happened so quickly, so we didn’t do that. Those who put down their odds at 9am when the odds were still at 13 have made good money on this. After that time, they all went downhill quickly, says Sofia Hjärtberg

2011 Nobel Peace Prize goes to three women

“It sends out a message to the Arab world that you can’t ignore women if you want a democratic society.”

So said Thorbjørn Jagland in his announcement of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”

It certainly fulfils Jagland’s cryptic clue earlier this week when he said the prize would go to “Not necessarily a big name, but a big mission — something important for the world.”

The prize also makes Nobel history this is the first time ever that a Nobel Prize in any area has been shared between three women.

As the press release says Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became Africa’s first democratically elected female president in 2006, and “has contributed to securing peace in Liberia, to promoting economic and social development, and to strengthening the position of women.” Leymah Gbowee “mobilized and organized women across ethnic and religious dividing lines to bring an end to the long war in Liberia, and to ensure women’s participation in elections.” And Tawakkul Karman “has played a leading part in the struggle for women’s rights and for democracy and peace in Yemen.”

You can see Sirleaf talking about some of the leadership challenges a woman faces in this video from the TEDWomen conference, or watch this AlJazeera interview below:

Here’s a video of Leymah Gbowee accepting the 2009 JFK Profile in Courage Award

And here’s a Guardian profile of Tawakkul Karman from earlier this year, plus an article Karman wrote for The Guardian’s Comment is Free section. When Jagland was asked by the press after the announcement why the committee selected an activist from Yemen, he said “she showed courage long before the revolution started’, and that it was “a signal to the whole Arab world that one cannot set aside the women if one wants to build democracies”.

Cryptic clues spark more speculation about the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize

You have to hand it to Thorbjörn Jagland, secretary of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, he certainly knows how to get tongues wagging in advance of the Peace Prize announcement later today (11:00 CET).

The committee has courted controversy with its selections since the former prime minister of Norway became its chairman in 2009. US President Barack Obama received the prize in 2009, less than a year into his term of office. In 2010, the prize went to imprisoned Chinese writer and activist Liu Xiaobo, prompting a strident response from state authorities against Norway.

In an interview with Associated Press on Wednesday, Jagland drops some cryptic clues about this year’s Peace Prize recipient, He is quoted as saying:

“The most positive development will get the prize. So I’m a little bit surprised that it has not been already seen by many commentators and experts and all this because for me it’s obvious.”

So who have people listed as being in line for this year’s prize? I’ve blogged about this before, but The Guardian has a good rundown of the hopefuls. including Tunisian blogger Lina Ben Mhenni, the Russian human rights group Memorial, Egyptian Google executive Wael Ghonim, former German chancellor Helmut Kohl, and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. Ten years to the day that US-led troops went into Afganistan, Sima Samar, the head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, would be a timely award.

So-called “leading Nobel-guesser” Kristian Berg Harpviken, the director of the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, says his top picks are Egyptian activists Israa Abdel Fattah, Ahmed Maher and the April 6 Youth Movement, a pro-democracy Facebook group they co-founded in 2008.

Fanning the flames of speculation further, Jagland told the Norwegian newspaper VG on Thursday that this year’s recipient “is involved with something that has been important to me my whole life.” Could it be the European Union, then? Even though Norway is not a member, Jagland is a strong supporter of the EU, and in 1990, he wrote “My European Dream”, a book about European unity after the collapse of the Iron Curtain.

Two more Jagland quotes from Wednesday’s AP interview tease further. He said the prize would go to:

“Not necessarily a big name, but a big mission — something important for the world.”

followed by:

“For me and the committee, I think it’s quite obvious if you look at the world today and see what is happening out there. What are the major forces pushing the world in the right direction?”

An LA Times article throws up an interesting potential candidate, which if you look beyond the sensationalist headline, could satisfy Jagland’s cryptic clues. It asks: “Could he be referring to a Web platform that allows users to connect around the world?”

The 2011 Nobel Prize in Literature goes to Tomas Tranströmer

For the first time in 37 years, the Literature Prize has gone to a home-grown author. Nobelprize.org only has the English announcement, and so it lacks misses the crowd’s wonderful response when the Swedish announcement was made. You can hear the response on this audio clip from Sveriges Radio.

The response online has been a mixture of the usual “Who?”, but followed by an endless glut of “Transformer” jokes. So for those of you not familiar with Tranströmer (including me, it has to be said), here’s a brief rundown of his life and work.

Poets.org has a nice, brief biography of Tranströmer, a brief excerpt of which is below:

On April 15, 1931, Tomas Tranströmer was born in Stockholm, Sweden. He attended the University of Stockholm, where he studied psychology and poetry.

One of Sweden’s most important poets, Tranströmer has sold thousands of volumes in his native country, and his work has been translated into more than fifty languages.

His books of poetry in English include The Sorrow Gondola (Green Integer, 2010); New Collected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2011); The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems (New Directions, 2003); The Half-Finished Heaven (2001); New Collected Poems (1997); For the Living and the Dead (1995); Baltics (1974); Paths (1973); Windows and Stones (1972), an International Poetry Forum Selection and a runner-up for the National Book Award for translation; The Half-Finished Sky (1962); and Seventeen Poems (1954).

During the post-announcement interview, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy Peter Englund described Tranströmer’s work as follows:

“He is writing about the big questions: about death, history, memory, nature. Human beings are sort of the prism where all these great entities meet and it makes us important. You can never feel small after reading the poetry of Tomas Tranströmer.”

For people unfamiliar with Tranströmer’s work, Englund recommends beginning with The Half-finished Heaven & the New Collected Poems. There are plenty of websites that feature Tranströmer’s poetry. Here’s one example below.

AFTER A DEATH

Once there was a shock
that left behind a long, shimmering comet tail.
It keeps us inside. It makes the TV pictures snowy.
It settles in cold drops on the telephone wires.

One can still go slowly on skis in the winter sun
through brush where a few leaves hang on.
They resemble pages torn from old telephone directories.
Names swallowed by the cold.

It is still beautiful to feel the heart beat
but often the shadow seems more real than the body.
The samurai looks insignificant
 beside his armour of black dragon scales.

Or you can see Tranströmer reading one of his poems in this video.

 

I’ll leave the last word to Paul Muldoon at the New Yorker’s book blog. Rather than talk about yet another year when an American has missed out on the prize, Muldoon writes that it is “truly heartwarming” to see the prize going to Tranströmer, before adding:

“One can see how the Swedish Academy might have resisted giving the prize to a local boy out of some sense of propriety, so it’s great to see that sense of propriety give way to a more proper sense of the proprietary.”

The (fake and the real) 2011 Nobel Prize in Literature

It wasn’t to be Bob Dylan’s day, I’m afraid. But the 11th hour surge in betting for Tomas Tranströmer was right on the money. At 13:00 CET Peter Englund, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy announced that the Nobel Prize in Literature 2011 is awarded to the Swedish writer and poet “because, through his condensed, transluscent images, he gives us fresh access to reality”.

However, 15-30 mins before the announcement, news filtered through Twitter that the Serbian author Dobrica Cosic had received the prize. The reason? A hoax site had been set up.

The first tell-tale sign that this was a hoax was the url (http://www.nobelprizeliterature.org/ as opposed to http://www.nobelprize.org/) The second, the lack of a formal citation from the awarding committee. The twittersphere helped me to trace the origin of the site.

Martin Eve tells me he is looking into this further and will post anything he finds on his own blog. I’ll keep you updated too.

UPDATE: Martin has posted a full tech report of the hoax site here.

2011 Nobel Prize in Chemistry goes to quasicrystals

Well, I think it’s fair to say that this year’s Chemistry Prize caught everyone off guard. The award to Daniel Shechtman for the discovery of quasicrystals was absent from all the prediction lists. On Twitter, the overwhelming response to the news was: “What are quasicrystals?”

For a good, thorough overview of quasicrystals, see this article (HT Ian Sample at the excellent Guardian liveblog). In simple terms, quasicrystals have regular elements, like normal crystals do, but these elements fit together in ways that never fully repeat themselves.

This might sound rather un-Nobel-worthy, but in fact, the story behind Shechtman’s discovery fulfills many the classic themes found within memorable Prize-awarded achievements — a scientist who goes against conventional thought, pursues the evidence rather than the story, and despite peer ridicule is eventually proved to be correct.

In Shechtman’s case his discovery of quasicrystals fundamentally changed the way chemists look at solid matter.  Here’s a nice video in which Shechtman discusses his discovery and its implications:

The official background information for the prize also paints a lovely picture of the morning of 8 April 1982, when Shechtman saw an image in his electron microscope that breached the laws of nature.

“Eyn chaya kazoo”, Daniel Shechtman said to himself. “There can be no such creature” in Hebrew… The material he was studying, a mix of aluminum and manganese, was strange-looking, and he had turned to the electron microscope in order to observe it at the atomic level. However, the picture that the microscope produced was counter to all logic: he saw concentric circles, each made of ten bright dots at the same distance from each other.

To say that Shechtman’s peers dismissed the finding as an experimental artifact would be a huge understatement. On his “In the Pipeline” blog, Derek Lowe provides a nice bit of personal perspective on the response:

I was in grad school when the result came out, and I well remember the stir it caused. Just publishing the result took a lot of nerve, since every single crystallographer in the world would tell you that if they knew one thing about their field, it was that you couldn’t have something like this.

For a full account of the reaction, I recommend you read this article from 2001 by Shechtman’s colleague John Cahn and this blogpost by Greg Laden. This quote from the prize background material gives a flavour of what occurred. Remember, this came from people in Shechtman’s own workplace.

[Shechtman] was faced with complete opposition, and some colleagues even resorted to ridicule. Many claimed that what he had observed was in fact a twin crystal. The head of the laboratory gave him a textbook of crystallography and suggested he should read it. Shechtman, of course, already knew what it said but trusted his experiments more than the textbook. All the commotion finally led his boss to ask him to leave the research group.

As this Associated News article reveals, the scientific community reacted with uproar when Shechtman’s findings were published in 1984, most notably by two-time Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling. According to Shechtman, Pauling said: “Danny Shechtman is talking nonsense. There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists.” (You can read Pauling’s letter to Nature disputing Shechtman’s results here.)

When asked today by Adam Smith from Nobelprize.org what his experience of discovering quasicrystals taught him about science, Shechtman responded: “It taught me that a good scientist is a humble scientist who is open-minded to listen to other scientists when they discover something.” It’s a lesson for us all.

For journalists, Shechtman’s tale of triumph against scientific ridicule and adversity isn’t the only compelling story linked with this prize. There’s also the issue of who else could, or should, have been included. Almost immediately, people asked why the name of mathematician Roger Penrose was absent. The atoms in Shechtman’s quasicrystals are arranged like patterns called Penrose tiles, which the mathematician devised in the mid-1970s. When asked why Penrose wasn’t included, the Chemistry Prize committee said they were acknowledging the discovery specifically, a definition that also appears to rule out the physicist Paul Steinhardt, who actually coined the term “quasicrystals”.

UPDATE: Ian Sample has in fact just posted some quotes from Penrose on Twitter, including his opinion as to whether Shechtman’s ideas for quasicrystals had been influenced by Penrose tiling (pasted below).

Predictions for the 2011 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Another day, another Nobel Prize announcement. Today it’s the turn of the Chemistry Prize. The announcement will be made in under two hours, at 11:45 CET, and as always you can see the live announcement webcast on Nobelprize.org.

So, who could be in the running this year. Well, when it comes to chemistry predictions, most eyes turn to Paul Bracher and his ChemBark blog. With organic chemistry getting the prize last year, and structural biology the year before, Bracher’s favourites are Richard Zare and WE Moerner for developing laser-based and single-molecule spectroscopy techniques (see Zare’s Wolf Prize citation here and Moerner’s here), and Pierre Chambon, Ronald Evans and Elwood Jensen for the discovery of nuclear hormone receptors (you can see their 2004 Lasker Prize citation here).

Karin Bojs at the Swedish daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter agrees with the Zare & Moerner prediction, but adds Arthur Horwich and Franz-Ulrich Hartl to her list for their work on protein-folding mechanisms, and also picks DNA sequencing technology, with Eugene Myers, Craig Venter and Leroy Hood as her choice of likely candidates. Ash Jogalekar at Curious Waveform, has some of the candidates above on his list, but also mentions Stuart Schrieber and Peter Schultz for chemical biology and chemical genetics.

Thomson Reuters, meanwhile, as I previously posted have a different list of candidates: Allen Bard for “the development and application of scanning electrochemical microscopy; Jean Fréchet, Donald Tomalia, and Fritz Vögtle for “the invention and development of dendritic polymers; and Martin Karplus for pioneering simulations of the molecular dynamics of biomolecules.

Will it be an organic chemistry prize, an analytical chemistry prize, or another biology-related prize to upset the purists? I’ll post a rundown of the initial reactions as soon as I can after the announcement.