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.


Bob Dylan, betting rushes and the Nobel Prize in Literature… We’ve been here before…

So we say goodbye to science for a while on this blog and turn to the Nobel Prize in Literature, due to be announced at the stroke of 13:00 (CET) today. Normally, I would have a look at the pre-announcement coverage, but The Literary Saloon has done such a good job of this, I suggest you go there.

In the meantime, let’s talk about betting rushes. The big news about today’s Literature Prize announcement, of course, is the surprise rush on betting that has brought Bob Dylan from 100/1 rank outsider to favourite in bookmakers Ladbroke’s list. (UPDATE: Bob Dylan has now slipped to second favourite at 5/1 on Ladbroke’s list. The current favourite at 4/1 is the Swedish writer and poet Tomas Tranströmer.)

Alex Donohue of Ladbrokes is quoted as saying: “We have seen a lot of bets from Sweden, from people we believe to be quite well-informed.”

How likely is this to have happened? Well, cynics say this is a PR move, but believe it or not something similar happened a few years ago. Ladbrokes closed the betting on the Literature Prize in 2008 after an unusual rush of bets on the French author JMG Le Clézio before his name was announced as the Literature Laureate that year.

The Swedish Academy, which awards the prizes, was concerned that  Le Clézio’s
 identity had leaked out before the official announcement.

But how could this have happened? Well, it was revealed that the Swedish Academy had quirky codenames for their candidates on the shortlist, which they use in e-mails, or when they meet in public spaces. (According to this Associated Press article, Academy members have also been known to use fake covers to camouflage their books whenever reading in public.)

For instance, 2007 Literature Laureate Doris Lessing was “Little Dorrit”, the young character in Dickens’s novel, and 2005 Laureate Harold Pinter was “Harry Potter”. Le Clézio’s codename was “Chateaubriand”, the grand French dish of fillet steak cut from the tenderloin.

So it’s not difficult to assume that someone overheard the codename in 2008, perhaps in Den Gyldene Freden – the restaurant where the Swedish Academy officially dine – and put two and two together. The surprise was that such a simple code had not been cracked earlier.

Could this have happened this year? Well, Peter Englund, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, used to work in military intelligence, and has previously said that they have taken a number of measures to see that the situation with Le Clézio isn’t repeated. However, let’s see if this year’s betting rush coincides with a similar outcome.


2011 Nobel Prize in Physics goes to dark energy

The 2011 Nobel Prize for Physics has just been announced: one half goes to Saul Perlmutter from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, US, the other half shared by Adam Riess at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore and Brian Schmidt from the Australian National University, Weston Creek, “for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe through observations of distant supernovae”.

As the press release from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences says: “For almost a century, the universe has been known to be expanding as a consequence of the Big Bang about 14 billion years ago. However, the discovery that this expansion is accelerating is astounding. If the expansion will continue to speed up the universe will end in ice.”

As mentioned in’s traditional post-announcement interview with the Physics Committee member, Perlmutter and Schmidt led rival groups that revealed the expansion of the universe is accelerating. The concept of “dark energy” was used to explain what was driving the expansion. The scientific community, who had long used Einstein’s constant for a static universe, almost immediately accepted a new model of the universe.

Ian Sample at the Guardian’s liveblog has posted some wonderful videos of the new Physics Laureates discussing their work on the expansion of the universe, including the one below in which Brian Schmidt talks about the beginning and end of the universe.

However, the Physics World blog takes a more controversial tack, highlighting the difficulties in assigning scientific credit to a discovery made by two rival groups, especially under the restraints of the Nobel Prize, which can only be awarded to maximum of three individuals.

The post points to Robert Crease’s Physics World article, published in 2007, which described the scientific credit issues that were at stake, in particular the question of who reported and published their work first. Apparently the article caused a stir. Members from both teams were worried about the piece, and it ended up going through more than 20 drafts. Crease’s article is worth reading to get a sense of, as the blogpost says: “how deeply scientific progress is indebted to ambition, desire, pride, rivalry, suspicion and other perfectly ordinary human passions.”

Sample has just posted words to a similar effect from Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal & Emeritus Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics at the University of Cambridge. As Lord Rees tells Sample:

“I think, however, that this is one of the increasingly frequent instances when the Nobel Committee is damagingly constrained by its tradition that a prize can’t be shared between more than three individuals. It would have been fairer, and would send a less distorted message about how this kind of science is actually done, if the award had been made collectively to all members of the two groups.”

Oh, and by the way… if you ever wanted to follow a Nobel Laureate on Twitter you now can. You’ll find Brian Schmidt at @cosmicpinot. His Twitter bio currently reads: “An overly busy Cosmologist, Grape Grower, Astronomer, Wine maker, Dad, and Husband.” I’m sure he’ll be adding Nobel Laureate to that soon.

Why start a Nobel Prize Watch blog?

One of the main reasons for creating a blog that tracks coverage of the 2011 Nobel Prizes is to fill a hole that I often encountered in my job as an editor at

Trawling through archives to write about Nobel Prizes, what was regularly missing was a true appreciation of the Prizes at the time that they were awarded. This element of context is extremely valuable. For example, to fully appreciate any instances of research or Laureates that turned out to be controversial, or controversial research/Laureates that turned out to be a seemingly obvious selection, we need to know more about the prizes at the time they were awarded, not merely view them through the prism of time.

The overabundance of information sources we have nowadays should take care of this, and yet this presents its own difficulties. Sure, all the big news organizations file their report on the prizes, but beyond this lie lesser-read gems where people provide a more personal perspective on the research or Laureates, discussions and arguments develop, and images tell their own story. To find this, though, requires finding the needles in the haystack.

So, this gave me the idea for a Nobel Prize Watch blog. Track the coverage of this year’s announcements for all the Nobel Prizes, and post and link to a selection of the most interesting/provocative stories, controversies and arguments that develop before and after the announcements. In other words, treat the news of the prizes as a process instead of a finished product.

I’ll mention more about how this will be done in the next post, but all things going well, I hope that this blog will provide a valuable information archive, and in the process I hope that it provides some form of interest to you.