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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 9 2013: The Nobel Prize is rated based on its recipients. Is the Nobel Prize over rated with respect to a Fields Medal? These prizes are on the same level because of those who where awarded the prizes. Distinguished individuals define the prize. The great individuals including Rosalind Franklin define excellence in their field, so the Nobel Prize would have had greater prestige with her name among the recipients. A Fields Medal could have been more distinguished with Perelman and Wiles, who will go down in history as two of the greatest mathematicians of their generation. Wiles was too old to receive the award and Perelman rejected the award. Is the Nobel Prize over rated with respect to the Fundamental Physics Prize? Of course not. None of those recipients have done anything worthy of being mentioned in the same sentence as those who received the Nobel Prize. Field by field, the recipients make the prize over rated or under rated.
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      Feb 9 2013: Hi Jamahl,

      The approach you're using to determine the worth of these prizes is very different from the approaches I have seen thus far. I totally agree that in terms of retrospective analysis the awards we're discussing are given their status as a result of the merits associated with the granting of the award. That being said, I think the reputations of these types of awards end up taking on a life of their own, leading to awardee recognition being a result of award association instead of merit (another example would be the Grammy awards). As was mentioned by one of my colleagues earlier, there's only so much you can do about the "correctness" of the award decisions made - after all, these decisions are made by people.

      This wouldn't make a difference if it weren't for the message it sends to the global community and to future generations. I think it's fair to say that many Nobel Laureates get a (often well-deservedly) disproportionate amount of exposure in both public media and in the classroom. Therefore, it's especially important to be careful about the distribution of these awards due to its heavy cultural impact. This leads me to a question for you - do you think the Nobel Prize has too much cultural impact? Or does it perfectly merit its level of prestige in society?

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