My top Nobel reads of 2011

Ok, I admit it, I’ve succumbed to creating an end-of year reading list. But, covering the Nobel Prizes provides such a fantastic opportunity to explore great writing that covers many disciplines at many levels, it’s worth collecting and highlighting the short-form and long-form articles that left their mark on me this year.

Before listing the articles, I have a confession to make. These are articles that were published in the latter half of the year, when I began to research the blog in earnest. So, if you think there are other articles worth highlighting please do list and link to them in the comments.

In no particular order, here are my favourite Nobel-related reads of 2011, hope you enjoy them.

1) A fight for life that united a field
Lauren Gravitz, Nature
Ralph Steinman’s untimely death from cancer three days before being announced as recipient of the 2011 Medicine Prize provided a solemn note to this year’s proceedings. But, as Gravitz revealed, there was a further element of poignancy to the story, as Steinman had tried to beat his cancer with vaccines based on the very immune cells he had discovered. It’s a story that was years in the making, according to Gravitz. She was previously a science writer at Rockefeller University, where Steinman worked, and had spoken often with him about sharing this story. It’s great when stories like this eventually see the light of day, though sad that it happened through such unfortunate circumstances.

2) The king of human error
Michael Lewis, Vanity Fair
One of books of the year will undoubtedly be Thinking, Fast and Slow, by the cofounder of behavioural economics and 2002 Economics Laureate Daniel Kahneman. Lewis, one of the best longform writers in the game, portrays his subject in his usual lucid prose, and finds Kahneman convinced his book is a vanity project doomed to end in miserable failure. Kahneman’s research career has been an unusual one: he seeks out people who attacked or criticized his ideas and persuades them to collaborate with him. “He not only tortured himself,” Lewis observes, “but invited his enemies to help him to do it.”

3) Mandela house spied on by cameras as media prepares for his death
David Smith, The Guardian
Once upon a time, newspapers and broadcast stations created obituaries of notable people in advance, ready to send to press or broadcast live the moment the eventual news broke. Our 24/7 culture demands more information, of course, and Smith reveals some of the covert preparations in place to report on the future death of Nelson Mandela. Known in closed quarters as the “M-plans”, the media’s strategies include pointing hidden cameras at his home, building studios, buying prime locations, and block-booking every helicopter in the area to thwart rivals from getting similar aerial shots.

4) 2011 Nobel Peace Prize speeches
The speeches by the three female Laureates provided the real raising-hairs-at-the-back-of-the-neck moments during this year’s Nobel festivities – from Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s rallying call to women, past and present; to Leymah Gbowee’s unbreakable spirit in the face of rape and AK47s; to Tawakkol Karman’s missive from the revolutionary youth. The image burned deepest into my retinas is how Gbowee created the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace Campaign with six other women gathered in a makeshift office, armed with nothing but their conviction and $10. It’s an inspiring and profoundly humbling image.

5) Large Hadron Collider & the ‘God Particle’: Six creators, one Nobel Prize
Joseph Brean, National Post
If the Higgs boson is found in 2012, then which of the six possible contenders who postulated the existence of the particle would get a Nobel Prize for it? The article discusses how filling the maximum of three spaces available for a Nobel Prize might prove to be the Physics committee’s greatest headache. It’s a tale of how science happens in the real world, where media campaigns and even a postal strike in 1960s Britain might come into play when it comes to apportioning credit.

6) Scientific American defends Marie Curie—and women scientists—in 1911
Mariette DiChristina, Scientific American
An excellent piece of scientific history, and a compelling case for making scientific journal and magazine archives accessible to everyone. When the 166-year-old Scientific American opened up it’s digital archives for a trial period, its editor, DiChristina, revealed how the magazine ran an editorial in support of Marie Curie in 1911 — the year she received her second Nobel Prize, and also was rejected from joining the French Academy of Sciences. “When science comes to the matter of bestowing its rewards it should be blind to the mere accident of sex,” states the editorial. Sadly, the statement is arguably no less true 100 years later as it was then.

7) Do we need the Nobel?: An exchange
Tim Parks and Per Wästberg, The New York Review of Books
Nobel Prize Committees regularly come under fire, and for my money the best of this year’s grumbles came from Tim Parks. In his blogpost entitled “What’s wrong with the Nobel Prize in Literature”, Parks asked how a small group of Swedish professors can possibly compare, say, a poet from Indonesia with a celebrity author like Philip Roth, and from the broad list of contenders decide who is the greatest novelist/poet of the day on the international scene. His words provoked a response from Per Wästberg, the president of the Nobel Committee, which while not wholly addressing Parks’ point contains the glorious line: “I try to read one book a day to keep ill health away”.

8) Ladbrokes says Syrian poet Adonis is smart bet for Nobel Prize
Hephzibah Anderson, Bloomberg Businessweek
What could have been a routine article on the betting in the run-up to the announcement of this year’s Literature Prize delivers a great kicker through the entrance of the gloriously, almost Dickensian-named Magnus Puke. Puke, whose job title at Ladbrokes is Nordic Sports and Novelty Odds Compiler, and who writes love poetry in his spare time, outlines his methods for setting odds  — working literary contacts, hanging out in online forums and keeping an eye on Twitter. The question dying to be asked is how different Puke’s reading habits are from Wästberg at the Nobel Committee.

9) China’s Nobel complex
Evan Osnos, New Yorker
Osnos, a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine living in Beijing, describes the “awkward anniversary in China” that marked the day of the 2011 Peace Prize announcement. One year on from the award to imprisoned dissident writer Liu Xiaobo, China’s embarrassment and anger with the Peace Prize Committee runs counter to its obsession with hooking its first Nobel Prize to a domestic-based scientist. It’s a short post but filled with lovely detail from someone on the ground, so it provides a great sense of China’s singular determination to distinguish itself and be recognized for its accomplishments.

10) Arsenic, quasicrystals and the myth of the science martyr
Michael Eisen, it is NOT junk
Many outlets ran the story of how Daniel Schechtman’s startling discovery of quasicrystals ran counter to everything that was perceived to be true in his field, and how he overcame prejudice and ridicule to eventually get this year’s Chemistry Nobel Prize. Eisen took a terrific “success and failure as twin imposters” angle on this, by illustrating how a similar story could apply to Felisa Wolfe-Simon’s much-criticized announcement last year that she had isolated a strain of bacteria that could use arsenic (unlike all other life on earth which uses phosphorous). Portrayals of scientific history love to glorify the ideal of the suffering, unrecognized genius, says Eisen, and yet they also reveal the destructive influence the myth of the scientific martyr can have on people who believe they fit that mould.

11) Do you love science? Well, that depends, do you like sleep?
Scicurious, Neurotic Physiology
Should we really glorify the workaholic culture cited by many Nobel Laureates as a key factor behind their success? Why do we accept that working all hours makes you a better scientist and produce better results? Scicurious argues excellently against this myth, with a neat inclusion of Storify to illustrate how several of her scientific peers feel about the subject of work/life balance.


Week in links (17 December)

Should we really glorify the workaholic culture advocated by many Nobel Laureates, asks @scicurious.

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf writes about Alfred Nobel’s legacy for women in the New York Times.

The “M-plans”: The secret strategies the media has put in place to report the future death of Nelson Mandela.

British writer and iconoclastic Christopher Hitchens died from cancer this week. No-one was safe from his sharp, outspoken views, not even Peace Laureates.

Two Icelandic MPs have proposed their government should offer Chinese Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo political asylum in the country.

New documentary from called “Women of Peace”, where the three 2011 Laureates tell their stories.

… and if you are in Oslo, the 2011 Peace Prize exhibition has opened, with free entry until the New Year.

Paul Dirac’s dizzying 1939 lecture on the relationship between maths & physics.

Interesting analysis of graphene patents, showing how little has been patented by its Nobel Prize-winning discoverers.

Former research colleague questions whether Jules Hoffmann deserved this year’s Medicine Nobel Prize.

Egypt’s Ministry of Culture stops Sotheby’s auction of Naguib Mahfouz’s manuscripts.

Why New Delhi should heed what an Economist Laureate said in his Nobel Banquet speech last week.


Nobel Week in links

Nobel Week: General
For non-Scandinavians wondering how big an event NobelPrize Day is, this Swedish TV site gives you a good idea.

After each year’s Peace Prize is announced, the lovely people at the Nobel Peace Center have only a few weeks to create an exhibition in time for the Laureates to open it. This year’s exhibition is called SHEROES.

If you haven’t seen the inspiring and humbling Nobel Peace Prize speeches, I urge you to read them.

… and see the CNN interview afterwards, where the question of tokenism is dispatched pretty sharpish.

Nobel Prize Ceremony opening speeches have a different theme each year. This Year’s theme was fostering creativity & innovation through education.

If you care about your daughters, don’t let them watch the Nobel Prize ceremony.

But if you want royal fashions during the Nobel Prize ceremony, I’ll give you royal fashions. All eyes were on Crown Princess Victoria, who is 6 months pregnant. here’s some other people you won’t recognize too.

And here’s the slacker’s guide to winning a Nobel Prize

Nobel Week: Laureates
Nice New York Times profile of this year’s Economics Laureates – Intellectual sparring partners for 40 yrs & now reluctant celebrities.

The perennial question of how Nobel Prize winners spend their money has been answered this year by Brian Schmidt – he’s donated $100,000 to an Australian primary school science programme.

Excellent profile of Dan Shechtman, the Chemistry Laureate who was told he was a disgrace after showing colleagues his groundbreaking quasicrystal result.

Charming profile of Tomas Tranströmer, which provides a taste of how popular his award of the Nobel Prize is in his home country.

Did you know this year’s Literature Laureate is a keen entomologist & even has a beetle named after him?

This year’s Nobel Prize Banquet menu… which for some inexplicable reason is always kept a secret until the guests are seated.

Don’t often see this. The Wall Street Journal ran an ad from NYU Stern congratulate Thomas Sargent on his Nobel Prize.

And in other news… 

Physicists offer their thoughts on whether they think the Higgs boson real, including a limerick from one Nobel Laureate.

If the Higgs boson is found, then which of at least 6 possible contenders would get a Nobel Prize for it?

Excellent piece of scientific history: Scientific American defends Marie Curie—and women scientists—in 1911. 

Sotherby’s are auctioning manuscripts by only Arab writer to win Literature Nobel Prize. Cost? A cool £50-70K.

“It’s become more than a movie, it’s become a lesson in life as well.” The new Aung San Suu Kyi film premiered this week.

Five Peace Prize winners have called for the release of jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, arguing that the world has already begun to stop thinking about his case.

Meanwhile, China’s Nobel-naysaying alternative honours Vladimir Putin with Confucius Peace Prize.

How to survive Nobel Week

Unless you have been to Stockholm, or are Scandinavian, it’s difficult to realise just how grand an affair Nobel Week is for the new Laureates. They get a rare taste of the celebrity lifestyle, with a schedule of interviews, press conferences, champagne receptions and other events to match.

So, for any budding Nobel Laureates out there, I’ve popped up on the UK’s Guardian to provide some tips on how to best survive Nobel Week.

You’ll find me speaking on their Science Weekly podcast (around 17 mins in), plus I’ve written a post on the same subject on their Science Blogs site.

Hope you enjoy them, and many thanks to Alok Jha and Jason Phipps at the Guardian for allowing me to talk about all things Nobel.

How not to give a Nobel Lecture

While the Nobel Laureates are visiting Stockholm and Oslo this week, their only obligation (other than actually receive the prize) is to deliver a public lecture. As always, you can watch the lectures live on

The statutes declare that Laureates give their lecture before, or no later than six months after the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony. In truth, the rules are often relaxed under extenuating circumstances. If Laureates are too ill to travel then recorded video lectures can be screened to an audience in the run-up to the ceremonies, as was the case with Economics Laureate Leonid Hurwicz in 2007 and Literature Laureate Harold Pinter in 2005. This year, there won’t be a Literature Nobel Lecture owing to Tomas Tranströmer’s health, instead there will be a programme featuring his texts. Due to Ralph Steinman’s untimely passing away, his colleague from Rockefeller University Professor Michel Nussenweig will deliver a lecture for the Medicine Prize outlining Steinman’s achievements.

Laureates don’t tend to forfeit the prize if they fail to give a lecture, either. When Wilhelm Roentgen, discoverer of X-rays, received the first Nobel Prize for Physics in 1901, he said he would return to Stockholm to give a lecture, but he never did. More recently, Liu Xiaobo was incarcerated by Chinese authorities when he was awarded the Peace Prize last year, and in his place the Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann recited the final statement Liu wrote before his arrest.

The brief for Nobel Lectures is usually simple: talk about a subject connected with the prize-awarded work, and stick to the 45-minute time slot. If there’s more than one Laureate, they usually work out in advance who will say what with regards to the prize-awarded work, so that they avoid any repetition.

What you shouldn’t do is use your brief time on stage to discredit a rival, especially if that person happens to be there to receive the Nobel Prize with you. And yet, that’s exactly what the Italian anatomist Camillo Golgi did in 1906, when he launched into a malicious attack on his Medicine co-Laureate, the Spanish anatomist Santiago Ramón y Cajal.

Both scientists had developed staining methods that revealed the complex anatomy of the nervous system in exquisite detail. Working by candlelight in a hospital kitchen that he had converted into a laboratory, Golgi discovered a technique in the 1870s for impregnating brain and other tissue with a silver solution in such a way that made it possible to stain nerve cells black and view under the microscope.

Drawing by Camillo Golgi of the brain's hippocampus region made visible thanks to his silver-staining method

Cajal refined Golgi’s silver staining method, and blessed with an artist’s hand, he created thousands of beautiful drawings that depicted the nervous tissue as resembling in his words “a forest of outstretched trees”.

But, though both researchers used similar methods, Cajal spotted something different through the microscope. Golgi viewed the nervous system as being a seamless, continuous network of interconnected cells, with nerve signals firing along in all directions. Cajal, on the other hand, proposed that the brain is composed of billions of individual cells, or neurons (a term coined by the German anatomist Heinrich Wilhelm Gottfried von Waldeyer-Hart), receiving information at one end and transmitting it in one direction along to the next cell.

One of Santiago Ramón y Cajal's many intricate drawings of brain cells.

To promote his theory, Cajal went on a two-month tour of European scientific centres in 1889 and presented his slides and drawings to the great and the good. Most of his peers were eventually persuaded by his arguments, except for Golgi, who made sure he was out of town when Cajal visited Pavia to see him.

An indignant Golgi refused to give up on his theory. He spent years seeking evidence that both supported his views and refuted Cajal’s, and he used the opportunity of his Nobel Lecture in 1906 to outline what he thought was wrong with the Spanish anatomist’s views. With the provocative title of “The neuron doctrine – theory and facts”, Golgi began his Nobel Lecture by saying:

It may seem strange that, since I have always been opposed to the neuron theory – although acknowledging that its starting-point is to be found in my own work – I have chosen this question of the neuron as the subject of my lecture, and that it comes at a time when this doctrine is generally recognized to be going out of favour.

Golgi then proceeded to outline experiments conducted by researchers at his institute that had exposed flaws in the theory, before concluding grandly:

My wish is that these new anatomical studies, on which this Institute, in such a high order of thought, has wished to draw the attention of the world, may represent a new element of progress for humanity.

Cajal handled the uncomfortable situation with grace, beginning his lecture as follows:

In accordance with the tradition followed by the illustrious orators honoured before me with the Nobel Prize, I am going to talk to you about the principal results of my scientific work in the realm of the histology and physiology of the nervous system.

Golgi might have thought that he won the battle on that day in Stockholm, but Cajal won the war. [UPDATE: see comment below] The neuron doctrine remains a fundamental principle for understanding the central nervous system.

So this episode provides two salutary lessons for budding Nobel Laureates. First, even a scientist as brilliant as Golgi, without whom Cajal could not have made his prize-awarded observations, can be undone if they lose objective sight over rival claims. Second, if you are going to wrongly attack your rival’s theories, try not to do so on one of the highest-profile of stages − especially as your words will be recorded for generations of scientists to discover.

Nobel Week begins

Today this year’s Laureates in Physics, Medicine and Economics begin to arrive in Stockholm to experience a celebration of their achievements like no other.

Unless you have been to Sweden or Norway, it’s difficult to appreciate just how much the Nobel Prize festivities are ingrained into their popular culture. Newspapers and TV programmes will cover the Laureates’ movements all week, and the Nobel Prize Ceremony and Banquet will be broadcast live on TV. For science Laureates more accustomed to university halls than red carpets, the next few days will provide a rare glimpse of the celebrity lifestyle.

As you can see from the official schedule, there’s a lot of events packed into Nobel Week, and so over on the Guardian Science Podcast I’ve provided a brief survival guide for Laureates. For those Laureates arriving in Stockholm today, enjoy the surroundings of the Grand Hotel, and get some rest. You’re about to experience a long and memorable week.

Week in links (27 Nov-03 Dec)

Plans for a new Nobel Prize Center in Stockholm have been announced, designed to be a contemporary meeting place for Nobel Laureates, researchers, students, school pupils and the general public.

Interview with the new Executive Director of the Nobel Foundation, Lars Heikensten. Wish he had been pushed more on future directions, especially the three-person rule.

Two physicists have bet chocolate Nobel Prize medals on whether evidence for the Higgs boson will be found at the Large Hadron Collider.
(P.S. Another Physics Laureate appears to have made a bet on whether the Higgs boson will be discovered

Charming cartoon on how to win a Nobel Prize, according to this year’s Laureate Adam Riess.

Nobel Prize-winning physicist whose crowd-sourcing philosophy is gaining traction in the university classroom.

Nobel Laureate Françoise Barré-Sinoussi says she is “furious” that funding into HIV & AIDS research is dropping.

Gabriel García Márquez wins 17-year legal fight with man claiming his life story provided the basis for the main character in Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Will Bollywood’s Big B play Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore in a new movie?

Hollywood is taking on the “impossible” challenge of trying to film literary works by William Faulkner, the Nobel Laureate famous for his stream of consciousness writing.

Polish poet and 1996 Laureate Wisława Szymborska is said to be recovering well after surgery.

Remember this New York Review of Books article on what’s wrong with the Nobel Prize in Literature? The president of the Nobel Committee has responded.

US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton and Aung San Suu Kyi have made an unprecedented public vow to work together and promote democratic reforms in Myanmar.

On Twitter @DigitisationSA is mining the Luthuli Museum archives to relive the stories and the controversies surrounding Albert Luthuli’s trip to Oslo 50 years ago, when he became the first African to receive the Nobel Peace Peace.

The first English-language collection of works by Liu Xiaobo has been published in English on the first anniversary of his Peace Prize award.

The leaking of nominations for next year’s Nobel Peace Prize has begun…

Readers of Freakonomics put their questions to Daniel Kahneman, father of behavioural economics.

And finally…
In society news… Princess Madeleine is skipping this year’s Nobel Prize festivities in Stockholm to attend a women in science event in NYC.