Secrets, big science and dynamite: The quirky stories behind how Nobel Prizes work

Secrets, big science and dynamite: The quirky stories behind how Nobel Prizes work

Secrets, big science and dynamite: The quirky stories behind how Nobel Prizes work

Updated 7 October 2017, 11:30 AEDT

The Nobel Prize might never had existed had a newspaper not accidentally posted Alfred Nobel's obituary before he died.

During his lifetime, Nobel became famous for making a vast fortune off inventing dynamite.

But when his brother Ludvig died, the story goes, a French newspaper mistakenly published Alfred Nobel's obituary instead.

Reading a summary of your life's achievements while still alive would be surreal enough were the obit not nauseatingly titled "The Merchant of Death is Dead".

"Dr Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday," it read.

It is widely speculated that Nobel was so horrified his legacy could amount to the capacity to wipe out people en masse, he swiftly set about enacting some damage control.

When he really did die, the Swedish chemist's last will and testament left most of his fortune to a series of awards to be named the Nobel Prizes.

Today, the name Nobel is associated with one of the world's most respected series of prizes in the fields of science and the arts.

There are other interesting quirks regarding the Nobel Prizes that have arisen over its century-long existence that are nearly as captivating as its mythical origin story.

Three winners in the era of Big Science

The Nobel Prize for science is only ever awarded to a maximum of three living people, no matter how many people worked on the project.

For an example, look no further than earlier this week when the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to three American scientists for "decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves".

Gravitational waves might sound complicated in Dr Whovian wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey sort of way, but Sydney University astrophysicist Professor Geraint Lewis was able to sum it up in 50 words or less.

"Space and time has a rubbery consistency to it, so if you set up a ripple, that ripple can travel through space and time, and that's what we call a gravitational wave."

It was Albert Einstein who first predicted the existence of gravitational waves 100 years ago, and the LIGO detector is the incredible modern device that was able to prove it.

But there's a wrinkle in the plaudit — thousands of people were behind the scientific discovery.

Not to mention countless others, who helped develop the materials and technologies needed for LIGO to be built.

"You have to remember the Nobel Prize was set up 1900-ish," said Professor Lewis.

"Science was a very different time then.

"It was often individuals — not really lone individuals — people working with other people, but it was individuals that made the breakthrough."

Think Marie Curie and her husband for discovering radioactivity, or Albert Einstein for finding the cause of the photoelectric effect.

These days the majority of all peer reviewed studies are co-authored, often by people spanning across the globe.

It's called "big science".

"Over the last half century, we've moved into big science and in big science rarely do you get that notion of a lone genius anymore, it's a big collaborative effort," said Professor Lewis.

"But the rules of the Nobel Prize still stand that it's awarded to a maximum of three people and it's not awarded posthumously, so it can only be awarded to three living people."

According to Professor Caroline Wagner writing for The Conversation this week, a prize or citation for being a lead author can lead to more opportunities, more plaudits and even more citations, creating "superstars" in science.

So what are the repercussions of awarding just three people a Nobel Prize for a project so many contributed to? And is it fair?

"The downside of needing a primary author on a collaborative paper means that collaborators, such as notable women who also worked on LIGO sit in the shadows," said Professor Wagner.

She posits an interesting theory: "The Nobel Prize, developed to recognise 19th-century creativity, may no longer reflect the true contributions within 21st-century science."

Dead guys can't win

In 1970 the Nobel Foundation changed its rules, declaring that only living people can receive the prize.

In 2011, this decision was put to the test in the case of Canadian immunologist Ralph Steinman, who was to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.

Steinman was a cancer researcher who made a landmark discovery about the immune system.

Not only was his discovery of the dendritic cells the basis for his Nobel nomination, in a spooky coincidence it also extended his own life.

When Steinman was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he used his life's work in an experiment on his own body.

Steinman removed a piece of his tumour, then trained his immune cells to track down any remaining cancerous cells.

It was a risky, experimental procedure, but it likely kept him alive years longer than expected.

In the weeks leading up to the Nobel announcement, Steinman joked to his family, "They don't give [the Nobel Prize] to you if you have passed away. I got to hold out for that."

He died just three days before the Prize was awarded.

But the Nobel Foundation, unaware of his death, had already given him the award and decided in retrospect not to revoke it.

And so the immunologist and human guinea pig, Ralph Steinman, will forever be remembered as a Nobel Prize winner.

A 50-year secret

Another rule of the Nobel Prize that nominees and deliberations are not revealed until 50 years later.

"The Nobel discussions are kept hidden for half a century to stop people arguing about who should have gotten the Nobel Prize," said Professor Lewis.

For example, when the 1962 archives were opened in 2012, it was discovered some unsavoury deliberations went down behind the closed doors.

The 1962 winner John Steinbeck might be known as a giant in his field, but when the "50 year rule" lifted, he was chosen merely as the best of a bad lot.

"There aren't any obvious candidates for the Nobel prize and the prize committee is in an unenviable situation," committee member Henry Olsson said.

At the time, Steinbeck had been nominated eight times without a win, and his most notable work, Of Mice and Men, was long behind him.

But much like the long overdue Oscar for Leonardo DiCaprio, the Nobel committee agreed Steinbeck's popular reputation was enough to warrant the gong.

The decision did not go unnoticed.

On the eve of the award ceremony, the New York Times asked why the Nobel committee gave the award to an author whose "limited talent is, in his best books, watered down by tenth-rate philosophising".

When Steinbeck was asked if he deserved the Nobel, he replied, "Frankly, no".