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.

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)



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 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 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

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.

Timeline: History of the Nobel Prizes

There’s only a week to go before the 2011 Nobel Prize Announcements begin in earnest. So, in addition to covering the news and stories in the run-up to next week, I also plan to post a few explainers, beginning with this timeline covering some of the most important milestones and controversies that the prizes have witnessed in its 110-year history.

Admittedly, this is a first working version of the timeline, I’ll add to it over the coming days. If you feel something is missing or there are any errors, please leave a comment below.

I should add that this form of explainer was inspired by Ed Yong’s use of timelines to capture the stories behind scientific breakthroughs, which in turn, was inspired by John Rennie’s manifesto on how to improve science journalism.

Let the predictions begin

Nobel season always unofficially begins when the first predictions start rolling in, and today Thomson Reuters published its annual predictions for the Physics, Chemistry, Medicine and Economics Prizes.

Since 1989, the Science business unit at Thomson Reuters has been making these predictions in one form or another, based on analyses of highly cited research papers in the prize fields. I’ll leave it to ScienceInsider to tell you a bit more about the selection process, but top of Thomson Reuters’ 2011 prediction lists are:

Alain Aspect, John F. Clauser and Anton Zeilinger for “their tests of Bell’s inequalities and research on quantum entanglement.”
Sajeev John and Eli Yablonovitch for “their invention and development of photonic band gap materials.”
Hideo Ohno for “contributions to ferromagnetism in diluted magnetic semiconductors.” 

Allen J. Bard for “the development and application of scanning electrochemical microscopy.”
Jean M. J. Fréchet, Donald A. Tomalia, and Fritz Vögtle for “the invention and development of dendritic polymers.”
Martin Karplus for “pioneering simulations of the molecular dynamics of biomolecules.”

Brian J. Druker
, Nicholas B. Lydon and Charles L. Sawyers for “their development of imatinib and dasatinib, revolutionary, targeted treatments for chronic myeloid leukemia.”
Robert S. Langer and Joseph P. Vacanti “for their pioneering research in tissue engineering and regenerative medicine.”
Jacques F. A. P. Miller for “his discovery of the function of the thymus and the identification of T cells and B cells in mammalian species,” with Robert L. Coffman and Timothy R. Mosmann for “their discovery of two types of T lymphocytes, TH1 and TH2, and their role in regulating host immune response.” 

Douglas W. Diamond
for “his analysis of financial intermediation and monitoring.”
Jerry A. Hausman and Halbert L. White, Jr. for “their contributions to econometrics, specifically the Hausman specification test and the White standard errors test.”
Anne O. Krueger and Gordon Tullock for “their description of rent-seeking behavior and its implications.”

Last year, David Pendlebury, Citation Analyst at Thomson Reuters was quoted as saying: “People who win the Nobel prize publish about five times as much as the average scientist and are cited 20 times as often as the average scientist.” Sounds persuasive, but how good are these predictions? Well, John Matson at Scientific American says that despite a few notable triumphs the overall success rate of the individual picks has been low. Only 13 of the 111 picks made between 2006 and 2010 went on to receive a Nobel Prize, either in the year of their selection or in subsequent years.

If those odds aren’t attractive enough to persuade you to bet the house on any of the above names, you could try some of the predictions made on science blogs, like ChemBark  or Everyday Scientist, and I’ll update this post as the predictions continue to come in. Or perhaps you might not fancy what the pros think, instead heading straight to Springfield, and see the list of names predicted last year by none other than the Simpsons.

22/09 UPDATE: If crowdsourcing is more your thing, Chemistry Views magazine is asking for the crowd to demonstrate its wisdom on who will get this year’s Chemistry Prize.