How the Nobel prize was won
Nov 13, 1998
Renowned theoretical physicists such as Ludwig Boltzmann, Willard Gibbs and Henri Poincare never won the Nobel Prize for Physics because of an in-built bias in favour of experimental research according to Elisabeth Crawford, a science historian at Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Strasbourg (Science 282 1256). Crawford's claim is based on analysis of archive documents released by the Nobel Foundation. Moreover, says Crawford, Marie Curie only shared the physics prize in 1903 because her husband Pierre, with whom she and Henri Becquerel shared the prize, refused to accept the award without her. Crawford reveals that Curie received only one nomination for the prize, although she went on to win a second Nobel prize, in chemistry, in 1911.
The Nobel Foundation chooses Nobel prize winners with the utmost secrecy. But in 1974 it agreed to allow historians access to any of its archives over fifty year old. Since then Crawford has documented how the earliest awards were chosen. She found that scientists who were nominated for an award, but failed to receive one, include Thomas Edison, the Wright brothers, and the astronomers George Hale and Arthur Eddington. Indeed, Arnold Sommerfeld, one of the pioneers of quantum theory, was nominated 74 times without success. The largest mistake made by the foundation, says Crawford, was the fact that Lise Meitner did not receive a share of the 1944 chemistry prize, which was awarded to Otto Hahn for the discovery of fission.
Over 4000 people were nominated for a Nobel prize during 1901 and 1939. According to Crawford the large number of nominees meant that the awarding committee's own ideas about what type of the scientific work should be honoured had an overall influence on the final result. In physical sciences, basic research always won over applied research, experiment over theory, and atomic and nuclear physics over astronomy and geophysics.
It was for these reasons that Albert Einstein won the 1921 prize for the photo-electric effect, rather than any of his more famous work. The committee was, according to Crawford, reluctant to give him the award for 'speculations' such as relativity.