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.

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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.

2011 Nobel Peace Prize goes to three women

“It sends out a message to the Arab world that you can’t ignore women if you want a democratic society.”

So said Thorbjørn Jagland in his announcement of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”

It certainly fulfils Jagland’s cryptic clue earlier this week when he said the prize would go to “Not necessarily a big name, but a big mission — something important for the world.”

The prize also makes Nobel history this is the first time ever that a Nobel Prize in any area has been shared between three women.

As the press release says Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became Africa’s first democratically elected female president in 2006, and “has contributed to securing peace in Liberia, to promoting economic and social development, and to strengthening the position of women.” Leymah Gbowee “mobilized and organized women across ethnic and religious dividing lines to bring an end to the long war in Liberia, and to ensure women’s participation in elections.” And Tawakkul Karman “has played a leading part in the struggle for women’s rights and for democracy and peace in Yemen.”

You can see Sirleaf talking about some of the leadership challenges a woman faces in this video from the TEDWomen conference, or watch this AlJazeera interview below:

Here’s a video of Leymah Gbowee accepting the 2009 JFK Profile in Courage Award

And here’s a Guardian profile of Tawakkul Karman from earlier this year, plus an article Karman wrote for The Guardian’s Comment is Free section. When Jagland was asked by the press after the announcement why the committee selected an activist from Yemen, he said “she showed courage long before the revolution started’, and that it was “a signal to the whole Arab world that one cannot set aside the women if one wants to build democracies”.

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.