The Missing Nobel Prizes

On his death in 1896, Alfred Nobel, the fabulously wealthy inventor of dynamite, left the bulk of his vast fortune for annual prizes in five specific fields: chemistry, physics, physiology or medicine, literature and peace. Whyfields? Nobel didn't say.
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The 2012 Nobel science season has just ended with the gala ceremonies in Stockholm. Now the new season -- I mean the new betting season -- begins. I'll kick it off, not by predicting who will but who won't win a Nobel Prize in 2013. I can't lose, I know. Most of the Earth's 7 billion people won't win one. But I'm not talking about everyone; I'm betting that one particular person won't win: Sir Andrew John Wiles, KBE, FRS, Royal Society Research Professor at Oxford. Not in 2013, not in 2014, not ever. No Nobel for him, though he solved a problem that defeated scholars for 350 years, has won at least 15 other major international prizes, has been mentioned in Star Trek and has had an asteroid named for him! Sir Andrew won't win a Nobel Prize because the problem he solved was Fermat's Last Theorem, and there is no Nobel Prize for mathematics.

As everyone who follows science, however vaguely, knows, on his death in 1896, Alfred Nobel, the fabulously wealthy inventor of dynamite, left the bulk of his vast fortune for annual prizes in five specific fields: chemistry, physics, physiology or medicine, literature and peace. His bequest surprised more than his relatives. Why those fields? Nobel didn't say, only that he made his choices "after mature deliberation." He took his reasons for those choices to the grave.

In the absence of fact, fancy sprouts. Like other mathematics students of my generation, I heard, and believed, the story that Nobel had ignored our subject out of spite -- not spite toward mathematics but toward a Swedish mathematician who had had an affair with his wife. What a disappointment it was to learn, years later, that Nobel had never married.

If sex wasn't his reason for leaving out math, whatever could it have been? In fact, Nobel may have left a hint in his last will and testament: The prizes would go to those who "shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind." The holder of more than 350 patents, Nobel prized discoveries that made a difference. Math that mattered would count as physics, or maybe chemistry or physiology. Math that didn't matter except to mathematicians, like Fermat's Last Theorem, didn't count at all; pure math was art. Nobel left nothing for prizes in music or painting, either. (But he believed in literature's benefits. The Nobel Prize in Literature would reward "the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.")

Yet if I'm right -- if that's how Nobel saw things -- then the mystery only deepens. Surely biology benefits mankind! So why is there no Nobel Prize in Biology? Google completed my question before I finished typing; someone had asked it before. Responses popped up. No salacious rumors -- maybe there are none, or maybe my browser censored them. Instead of rumors I found reassurances. Relax, they told me. Biology does win Nobels, in physiology and medicine and chemistry, too.

Chemistry, too? That's anachronistic. The chemistry-biology Nobel Prizes have gone for discoveries in molecular biology, for example the structures of DNA and hemoglobin. Nobel never heard of genes; the word was coined in 1909. The notion of "protein" was murky in his day. So, again, why no biology prize? Did Nobel think that biology = physiology + medicine? I doubt it. He read, and annotated, The Origin of Species. He may have thought Darwin's masterpiece was natural philosophy, not biological discovery -- thought-provoking theory, not yet fact. Even so, I think Nobel knew that biology was greater than the sum of those parts.

Then physiology + medicine + what? Nobel was an avid fiction fan; he would have read Frankenstein. Imagine a debate between two learned men, with Nobel as the judge. On one side we have Rabbi Judah Loew of ancient Prague who, legend says, breathed life into a clay golem by whispering the Holy Name in its ear. The rabbi's opponent is Mary Shelley's creation, the fictional Dr. Victor Frankenstein, who bestirred his weird creature with electric zaps. The topic for debate is: What is life? Nobel, a religious skeptic, quickly declares Frankenstein the winner. Biology needs no prize of its own, because biology = physiology + medicine + physics.

Nobel would be amazed and delighted by the chemistry-biology prizes, though he didn't foresee them. He signed his will and testament in Paris, France, on Nov. 27, 1895, exactly 19 days after Conrad Roentgen discovered X-rays in Würzburg, Germany, some 700 kilometers away. In those days publication took a while, and tweeting was for the birds; Nobel hadn't heard of X-rays when he put pen to paper. In 1901 Roentgen won the first Nobel Prize in Physics. No one knows what X-rays are, the prize committee said, but whatever they are, they have already transformed surgery. A decade later the German physicist Max von Laue won the 1914 physics prize for showing that crystals diffract X-rays, and thus X-rays are a form of light. X-ray diffraction turned out to be the Rosetta stone of the solid state. In England the father-son team W. H. Bragg and W. L. Bragg promptly deduced several simple crystal structures from their X-ray diffraction patterns; for this they earned the Nobel Prize in Physics, jointly, in 1915. The line from the Braggs to the double helix and proteins is long and steep, but it is straight. If ever discoveries conferred benefit to mankind, X-rays and X-ray crystallography did. "The impact of crystallography is present everywhere in our daily lives," the United Nations General Assembly said last summer, declaring 2014 the International Year of Crystallography. Crystallography is there "in modern drug development, nanotechnology and biotechnology, and underpins the development of all new materials, from toothpaste to aeroplane components."

So (maybe) biology is covered. But alas, poor math, poor music, poor painting! No, wait a minute (or a decade or a century). Neuroscience is already mapping the brain, if not yet the mind; it's hard on the trail of creativity, imagination and intelligence. If biology = physiology + medicine + physics + chemistry, then the arts, pure math included, are somewhere in that brew. I take back my bet. One of these years Sir Andrew may win after all.

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