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Osaze Udeagbala

Student , Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art

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Are Nobel Prizes overrated?

Since the issuing of the first award in 1901, the Nobel Prize has become the pinnacle of general recognition. Many would agree that those who have received the Nobel Prize have done great work in their field, but even so there are themes of rejection, redemption, and controversy surrounding the awards. In my Bioelectricity class, for example, we have discussed a number of Nobel Laureates such as Arrhenius, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1903, for work that once received less than stellar reviews from his very own professors, and Nernst, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1920 for work based on the work of Arrhenius. We have also seen in history (e.g. Rosalind Franklin) circumstances in which scientists have participated closely with Nobel Prize-winning research, but nonetheless were left unrecognized. Finally, as there are very few categories for this award (physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace), notably left out are awards for engineering, technology and other advancements for humankind. So I ask the TED community: Do you think Nobel Prize are awarded effectively? And with respect to science: Who is better at evaluating the value of a scientist’s research? Peers? Awards committees? Especially given the fact that it often takes many years to see if research can stand the test of time? Are Nobel Prizes overrated?


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    Feb 7 2013: Osaze,

    I think you bring up a very meaningful thought on how we perceive awards that is definitely worth discussing. From personal observation of a much smaller scale, I find that recognition of ones work is sometimes an significant motivator for further research. I can only imagine what it might be like on a larger scale, i.e. the Nobel Prizes. I do think that seeking acclamation is a questionable motive at best, but at the same time do these motivations really matter if that person is producing valuable analysis that can further enhance our understanding?

    As some people pointed out here, the Nobel prizes for peace and economics sometimes might not be the most deserved, and maybe a better system of commendation should be implemented, though that would be quite difficult as these categories tend to be very subjective. In terms of the more scientific awards, such as physics chemistry and medicine, I think the Nobel prizes have actually been largely successful in recognizing those who deserve acclamation. This might be in part because these are more objective areas and disputing some achievements might not make sense in this case.

    It is interesting that you bring up possibly including other fields in the Nobel awards, such as engineering and technology. I definitely do support this idea though I think we should be wary of adding too many categories.
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      Feb 7 2013: Hi Hadar,

      You bring up some good points! To address your question, I think that many (arguably, the majority) of Nobel Laureates receive this special recognition well after it is a significant motivation factor for their work. To this end, I would say that Nobel Prizes don't do too much in terms of motivating the recipient. This goes for the prizes in Physics/Medicine/Chemistry more than those of Economics/Peace/Literature, where the awards seem to currently trend towards being used as a political motivation factor (e.g. Barack Obama, the European Union).

      However, recognition of that significant work sends an important message to everyone else - not only the scientific/political community, but the global community. Inevitably, those who are honored by such a prestigious award become role models for those who are interested in those given fields. So, even though Nobel Prizes aren't the greatest or best timed motivators for those who were recognized, I think Nobel Prizes have an amazing amount of cultural impact, which is why I find this topic so important. After all, wouldn't you want to merit a Nobel Prize with your future work?
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      Feb 8 2013: Hadar,
      I absolutely agree with what you were saying about recognition being an excellent motivator. I feel our society often idolizes people like actors, singers, and athletes, presenting them with various awards and recognition. It is nice to have a prestigious award in other sometimes less publicized fields such as literature or economics. I personally would love to see a Nobel Prize award for Engineering, but you mentioned that we should be wary of adding too many categories. I wonder what could be the drawbacks of creating an award in more fields? Would it lose some of its charm and take away from the honor?
      I would disagree with you on one point, I do feel that the Nobel Prize can be a significant motivation factor for the recipient’s work. Science and research is done by people who are curious about the way things work and are looking for answers. Gaining a respectable reputation and being recognized for one’s work is just as satisfying even if it comes years after the work is done. Every scientist hopes to leave behind a legacy, to make some kinds of difference in the world, to be remembered.
      I was very interested in your distinction between prizes in Physics//Medicine/Chemistry and those of Economics/Peace/Literature. Do you think awards in the different fields have different connotations and implications?

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