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 Nobelprize.org.

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.

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