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.


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