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.


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

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.

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

Nobel Assembly’s statement in response to Ralph Steinman’s death

The Nobel Assembly’s site appears to be down, so I thought I’d post their statement in response to Ralph Steinman’s death below (which I actually ended up fishing from Scott Hensley’s tumblr feed).

It’s a brief but respectful response, and it’s difficult to know what will happen next, as this is unchartered territory. As the secretary of the Nobel Assembly, Goran Hansson, told The Guardian, this appears to be the first time since the posthumous prize rule changes were made in 1974 that the prize has been awarded to someone who had died.

As I mentioned in my last post, under the current Nobel statutes posthumous awards are not allowed unless a Laureate dies after the announcement, but before the award ceremony. So, it’s worth noting the sentence in the statement that reads: “This message was conveyed by The President of The Rockefeller University, where Professor Steinman worked, at 2.30 pm (CET), Monday October 3, 2011, after the decision and announcement about this year´s Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine.” [emphasis mine].

Steinman died three days ago, so whether knowledge of a Laureate’s death after a decision and announcement falls under the same definition as a Laureate dying after a decision and announcement, we’ll soon find out. The Medicine Prize Committee are no doubt examining the rules in minute detail in order to work out the next steps to take.

UPDATE (10/3): has published an official statement to say that the decision to award Ralph Steinman still stands. As I suggested above, the key issue is that Ralph Steinman was believed to be alive at announcement time – I’ve pasted the relevant section of the statement below.

Kudos to the Nobel Assembly for making a tricky but honourable decision.

“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. This was true – though not at the time of the decision – only a day or so previously. The Nobel Foundation thus believes that what has occurred is more reminiscent of the example in the statutes concerning a person who has been named as a Nobel Laureate and has died before the actual Nobel Prize Award Ceremony.

“The decision made by the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet thus remains unchanged.”


Med djup sorg har Nobelförsamlingen vid Karolinska Institutet mottagit beskedet att professor Ralph Steinman, en av årets tre Nobelpristagare i fysiologi eller medicin, avled under natten mellan 30:e september och 1:a oktober. Detta besked gavs av rektorn för Rockefeller University, där Steinman var verksam, kl 14.30 (CET) måndagen den 3:e oktober 2011, efter beslutet och tillkännagivandet om årets Nobelpris. Våra tankar går till Ralph Steinmans familj och medarbetare.

It is with deep sadness and regret that the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet has learned that Professor Ralph Steinman, one of this year´s three Nobel Laureates in Physiology or Medicine, passed away on September 30. This message was conveyed by The President of The Rockefeller University, where Professor Steinman worked, at 2.30 pm (CET), Monday October 3, 2011, after the decision and announcement about this year´s Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine. Our thoughts are with Ralph Steinman´s family and colleagues.

Nobel Prize posthumous rules explained

When I wrote about excitement in my last post, I had no idea how events would progress, and that they would do so in such a sad manner. Not long after the 2011 Medicine Prize announcement, Rockefeller University announced that Ralph Steinman had died last Friday from pancreatic cancer. It seems to be an extraordinarily sad coincidence; according to the release the family only notified Rockefeller of the news this morning.

Naturally, people are asking what will be the fate of Steinman’s share of the prize. An official press release is due shortly, but in the meantime it’s worth clarifying what the rules are for posthumous prizes.

The posthumous rules changed in 1974. Before 1974, a person could be awarded a prize posthumously if he or she had already been nominated, which was the case with Erik Axel Karlfeldt (Nobel Prize in Literature 1931) and Dag Hammarskjöld (Nobel Peace Prize, 1961). Under the 1974 Staute changes, the prize may only go to a deceased person if the recipient dies between the time the award is announced and the date the prize is awarded (December 10)

This has occurred only once since the 1974 statute changes (William Vickrey, 1996 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel).

It’s not clear how bound the Nobel committee are to the statutes, or what they will do now that the award has already been announced. In the meantime, I’m sure that everyone who offered congratulations only a few hours ago will offer their thoughts to Steinman’s wife, children and family during this bittersweet time.

2011 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine announced

Well, that was exciting, but perhaps not for the correct reasons. The live webfeed for the Medicine Prize announcement was beset with gremlins, and just before the announcement the Wikipedia page of Japanese stem cell scientist Shinya Yamanaka said that he had been awarded the prize (with no citation).

David Bradley at Sciencebase, who kindly sent me the screen shot below of the erroneous Wikipedia page was first out of the blocks with the pre-announcement news.

But eventually the news emerged that this year’s prize is shared: one half jointly to Bruce A. Beutler and Jules A. Hoffmann for their discoveries concerning the activation of innate immunity and the other half to Ralph M. Steinman for his discovery of the dendritic cell and its role in adaptive immunity. Scientists have speculated about Toll-like receptors and dendritic cells as a potential prize for several years, and as Daniel Cressey says on the Nature News blog, Hoffmann and Beutler shared this year’s Shaw prize for Life Science and Medicine with Ruslan Medzhitov for uncovering the mechanisms behind innate immunity. Let’s see if news stories ask questions about the difference in personnel between the two prizes.

I hope to build a timeline of the achievements behind the prize, and capture a flavour of the reaction on social media channels. I’ll post these as soon as I can, but bear with me… this is immunology after all!

By my estimation this is the first immunology prize since Peter Doherty and Rolf Zinkernagel in 1996 for their work on cell-mediated immunity — unless you include Stanley Prusiner’s 1997 prize on prions — but do correct me if I am wrong.

Local predictions for the Nobel Prizes

As many of the news stories say, today marks the beginning of the so-called “Nobel Season”, with the announcement of the 2011 Medicine Prize in a few hours time. Which means its time to start seeing who the smart money is on in Sweden.

I’ll leave the Literature and Peace predictions for later on this week, but top of the list for science prize predictors is Karin Bojs, science editor for the Swedish daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter. Bojs’s forecasts are frequently and unnervingly on the mark, and you can see her full list of predictions for the Medicine, Physics and Chemistry Prizes here. Bojs presents a lengthy and persuasive case for today’s Medicine Prize to be shared by Japanese researcher Shinya Yamanaka for his work with induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells for short, British scientist John Gurdon for being the first scientist to clone an animal, and Canadian biophysicist James Till for discovering of blood stem cells.

What sets Bojs’s prediction apart from most press speculation is that she tries to think in the same way that the committee would. In this case, she argues that not only would sharing the prize in this way provide a balance of basic research breakthroughs with clinical applications, but also that Till’s long time collaborator, Ernest McCullogh, died earlier this year, so there wouldn’t the issue of having more than the maximum three possible Laureates for an individual prize.

There appears to be no repeat of last year’s extraordinary events, in which the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet ran a front-page splash before the announcement declaring correctly that the recipient would be British test-tube baby pioneer Robert Edwards, and confidential documents were stolen from a committee member’s car. As the Associated Press reports, the Medicine Prize committee has applied even stricter rules on keeping their discussions and documents surrounding potential candidates secret. But it won’t be long before we find out who’s name is on their list for this year.