Tuesday, October 7, 2014

It's Nobel Prize Week

So as always, get ready for the annual debate over the utility of the Nobel Peace Prize, but they announce only one prize a day, and they've fallen into a semi-predictable pattern that, at least this year, is playing out normally: Physiology/Medicine leads off, followed by Physics, Chemistry, Literature, then Peace on Friday, with Economics having to wait until the following Monday.

A lot of the time the scientific Nobels end up going to people who've discovered something that can be put to rapid use in the real world, or has been already. And that's what usually makes up the list of scientific Nobel also-rans... hi there, National Geographic. And that's what the Nobel people are always under pressure to hand prizes to. This year, though, they didn't do that. Instead, they opted for a discovery in search of an application. The 2014 laureates are John O'Keefe of the US/UK, and May-Britt Moser and Edvard I. Moser of Norway, for their discovery of brain cells that help people navigate their environment. The New York Times writeup by Lawrence K. Altman has a handy chart to help you picture what exactly that means. It's certainly better than just saying 'inner GPS' like way too many people are doing in their own summaries of the awarding.

Also, before you get too excited in the runup to Friday, the nominations lists always have some fairly kooky names on them. Don't read anything into the wackier names you see tossed around. Nominations can come from a lot of different places; the Nobel people send out thousands of nomination forms per year. Per category in most cases. From those forms, 278 nominees were put up in the Peace category alone. The full list is by regulation sealed for 50 years, but a partial list has been compiled here. A Russian activist group calling itself the International Academy of Spiritual Unity and Cooperation of Peoples of the World managed to get on the nomination list and they put up Vladimir Putin.

You can nominate anyone but yourself. Anyone. ANYONE. As in, in 1939 a member of Sweden's parliament thought it was a good idea to nominate Hitler, who was so not-peaceful that the Nobel committee didn't hand out a Peace Prize to anyone that year, and couldn't hand out any Nobels at all for the next three years because they were too busy running from Hitler. (The nominee later withdrew his nomination on February 1, 1939, two days after Hitler gave a speech in front of the Reichstag warning of the "annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe." Presumably, the sounds of slapping filled the halls of Swedish parliament on January 31.)

There are no runners-up. You either win the Nobel or you don't. So don't read into how 'close' someone gets to winning or who the frontrunners are. Just don't. You're going to drive yourself nuts and it's not going to help. Suffice to say the Nobel committees have just about all the options they could want and then some. We'll just have to see what they do with those options.

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