This conversation is closed.

What’s your favorite (and/or least favorite) Nobel-Prize-winning science?

The Nobel Prize is awarded annually in recognition of significant scientific advances. In my Bioelectricity class, we’ve already learned about many Nobel Prize winners. Arrhenius, for example, won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1903 for his electrolytic theory concerning the dissociation of ions (electrically charged particles), Nernst, won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1920 for his work in understanding the energy of reactions, Hodgkin and Huxley won in 1963 for their discoveries concerning nerve action potentials, Neher and Sakmann received one in 1991 for work to isolate single ion channels in cells, and MacKinnon was awarded the Prize in Chemistry in 2003 for his discoveries concerning ion channels in cell membranes, just to name a few!
However, although the Nobel Prize for sciences is awarded formally for physics, chemistry, and physiology or medicine, there is no prize for engineering, for example, and also there have been controversies for prizes awarded in the past. And, so, why not ask:
What’s your favorite (and/or least favorite) Nobel-Prize-winning science? What makes science “good” or “bad” at all?

Closing Statement from Andrew Kiang

Thanks to all of you for sharing your favorite Nobel Prize winners and your opinions about what makes "good" science. In the end, "good science" is still hard to define clearly but it seems to lean on the side of working genuinely to benefit mankind. I am glad to hear there are other prizes with as much prestige as the Nobel. Good work in other categories besides the strict Nobel sciences need to be encouraged.

  • Feb 10 2012: Hi Andrew,
    For me, I think it's easier to answer what makes "good science" good rather than what make bad science bad, simply because there are too many things that can masquerade as science when in fact they are not. The best science would be a well thought out question regarding a natural phenomenon (or series of questions) that is answered unequivocally and, as a result, solves a vexing paradox that just will not be forced to fit within the constraints of an existing model or paradigm. A good example of this would be quantum theory explaining the black body problem in physics. Or even a series of questions and answers that describe a phenomenon that was previously unacknowledged, thereby starting entirely new fields of study, such as in cell theory, following the invention of microscopy and modern astronomy following the invention of telescopes. Good science is required to achieve all of this, which requires proper controls and unbiased reporting of all data coming in. As well as carefully set up experiments so that your answers are unequivocal,i.e. either yes or no, rather than maybe. Everyone especially hates to get a "maybe" type of answer! This usually means that something hasn't been set up correctly in some way.
    As for my favorite Nobel Prize discovery? I particularly enjoy the story behind Dr. Kary Mullis and his invention of PCR. Not just because it is so useful to me and everyone else working in molecular biology, but because it is so simple that it made people say "why didn't I think of that!". Simple, yet powerful.
    • Feb 12 2012: Hey Oliver, on a somewhat related note did you hear about the Kary Mullis Nobel Prize controversy? I find the idea that good science being a product of teamwork fascinating. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nobel_Prize_controversies
      • Feb 13 2012: Hi Ted,

        Didn't know that. But I figured an invention like that may have been somewhat contentious due to it's "simplicity" and other people in the lab developing it further to optimize it's potential. Still, I wasn't aware of the work going back to 1969!
  • thumb
    Feb 9 2012: Hi Andrew - you have asked a really great question. I am an engineer and an "electrophysiologist", which means I record bioelectricity arising from the Nernst potential and I record spikes that follow Hodgkin and Huxley's equations to do my job! You might think that one of these awards would be my favorite, but they aren’t! There is something that I use more often in my job then these things that we often take for granted.

    While you are right that there is no prize for engineering, there are still many engineering inventions that have won the Nobel Prize in Physics. For an example, there were 3 scientists from Bell Labs (John Bardeen, William Shockley, and Walter Brattain) shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1956 for discovering the principles of the transistor. While they didn't invent the computer, they allowed for the computer revolution to happen by allowing the devices to become tiny. My favorite Nobel Prize was awarded in 2000 to an engineer and physicist from Texas Instruments, Jack Kilby, for inventing the integrated circuit (IC) back in the 1950s. I go through catalogs of ICs everyday for my designs, and am forever grateful for his contributions to science and engineering.

    As for your last question, what makes science good/bad? I think that any science that answers something we don't know is "good" science. The history books are filled with ideas that were silly at the time, only to become very important some day in the future. The only "bad" science I see is "pseudoscience": the misuse of data to "prove" theories, instead of using data to debunk other plausible alternatives. My advice to everyone is to be skeptical. Skepticism is a Virtue!
  • thumb
    Feb 13 2012: Hello!!!!!

    I do not have a favorite or least favorite Nobel-Prize winning science. However, a Nobel laureate that has impacted my studies is Richard Feynman. I learned of Feynman in General Chemistry class from watching his video “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out” and watched the video again for Physics-Mechanics class. I gained true understanding and appreciation for his work in quantum electrodynamics in Modern Physics class.

    In the video, he gives his unique opinion of the Nobel Prize and other honors. He expresses his dislike for honors and discusses the negative aspects about honors. He states that the most important prizes are “the pleasure of finding the thing out, the kick in the discovery, and the observation of people using it.” To work towards benefiting mankind for the passion of subject matter rather than for honors is, I think, a great mentality to have.


    There are prizes that are considered to be the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for other fields such as engineering:
  • thumb
    Feb 13 2012: Norman Borlaug didn't win a science prize (he won the Peace Prize), but he developed disease-resistant, high-yield, any-weather wheat crops that saved billions from starvation; made lucrative grain exporters out of poor countries; provided sustenance for populations that would have gone to war for it and fed potential geniuses in far corners of the world! Amazing ripple-effects of what he did!
    • Feb 14 2012: That's pretty cool for Borlaug to have won the Peace Prize through agricultural science. I wonder if winning for peace says something about good science having more direct, beneficial applications to real world problems.
      • thumb
        Feb 14 2012: In a way, all Nobel prizes need that criterion: how do they better humanity? Merton and Scholes for example, won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1997 because they found out a way to buy futures at a certain price that would eliminate all risks--which is crazy because that would make buying stocks 100% risk free. They opened up an investment bank, and it worked for a while with amazing 20-40% returns, but then un-forecasted, rare economic upheavals not considered in their formula crashed their (and their investors') life savings.
  • thumb
    Feb 12 2012: It's definitely sad that there is no prize for engineering. Here's a list of other things that deserve Nobel Prizes, but don't and the alternatives which people consider is just as notable as a Noble Prize: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_prizes_known_as_the_Nobel_of_a_field

    I will refrain from listing my "favorite" Nobel Prize winner because I don't have one. I will however, mention that my favorite computer scientist who won the Turing Award aka "The Noble prize of computer science" is Marvin Minsky for his work on Artificial Intelligence. He also started the AI lab at MIT. (His inventions include the first Head-mounted display, Logo (the 'my first programming language' of programming languages), SNARC (the first randomly wires neural network learning machine). His research in AI became foundational to many subclasses of AI research like the analysis of artificial neural networks.

    I don't think enough people give computer science enough credit. It's awesome. The hardware and software that's derived from computer science is responsible for sustaining all of our modern day infrastructure. Check out all the other Turing Award winners, I'd choose them all as my favorite if I could.
    • Feb 12 2012: I'm glad there are distinguished awards that recognize other fields that are not in the Nobel Prize categories. This helps encourage work that is potentially more useful in today's world compared to the discoveries that are made in the Nobel sciences.
    • thumb
      Feb 14 2012: Howard,

      I’m glad you posted this link as it reminded me of a fascinating story I heard about a few years ago about a Russian mathematician by the name of Grigori Perelman, who won the Fields Medal, the highest award in Mathematics. Perelman was able to solve one of the Millennium Prize Problems, a set of problems which were considered important for the advancement of mathematics, and therefore a $1,000,000 prize would be awarded to anyone who was able to solve one. Perelman, however, refused to accept either the money or the highly coveted prize, stating that he did not want attention and that he should not be considered a hero for solving the problem. There is even news that Perelman decided to abandon mathematics because he was “disappointed” in the field. Although there are clearly some mind-boggling pieces to this story, I respect Mr. Perelman for his contribution. It is clear that his motive was just to advance the field of mathematics, and was disinterested in either the glory or the money which came with it. Whether I agree with his actions or not, and even though he did not actually physically receive any award, he still has a fascinating story, making him my "favorite" prize winner. To read more about Mr. Perelman, follow this link:
  • thumb
    Feb 14 2012: After reading all of these posts, I came to the conclusion that my favorite Nobel Prize winner is Marie Curie. She not only won the Nobel Prize in Physics for her work on radiation phenomena but also in Chemistry for her work with polonium. The work she did set the stage for future generations of medical research focused on radiation and oncology. The work she did branched out beyond just one subject, touching on both physics and chemistry. She was able to find the radiation of elements and the energy they emitted as well as discovering new elements. She was a pioneer in the field of radioactivity and should continue to be celebrated.
  • Feb 12 2012: I've always been a little dubious about the peace prize... Seems a little presumptuous to award a prize for something that rarely, if ever, lasts very long for any of the folks involved.

    And, no, I don't think there should be one for engineering. I am an engineer, and I've won awards within my field. But Nobel had much broader aspirations. Nobody wants to hear about the best way to process or manufacture this or that.

    We want Borlaug. if you haven't done anything that important, you don't need a prize...
    • Feb 14 2012: Hello Alan,

      From a student’s perspective, it seems that you might be underestimating the creative potential of the engineer. Certainly, there are engineers whose day-to-day work involves mundane inspections and calculations. However, I would argue that historically, there have been engineers who have shown considerable skill and creativity and, in my opinion, would have been deserving of a Nobel Prize. Take, for example, the construction of the Panama Canal in the late 19th/early 20th century. Considering the technological limitations of the time, the fact that the engineers involved managed to see the project to completion is impressive. To this day, the Panama Canal is recognized as one of the greatest achievements in engineering. I don’t think that it would have been at all out of place for George Washington Goethals (the head engineer in the later years of construction) to receive a Nobel Prize for his work.
      • Feb 14 2012: Hi Veronica!

        We engineers have done many, many creative things, and Goethals is a great example (we've got a bridge named after him here in New Jersey)

        I did not mean to say that our work is mundane or ordinary, just that it rarely involves discovery. We generally apply other folks discoveries. Engineering is filled with great challenges (and great fun in the application of technology to problems), but rarely involves actual discovery.

        It's just my opinion that Nobel intended his (science) prizes to be more related to discovery.

        I would, however, be more than willing to accept any prize that paid that well...
  • Feb 12 2012: Hey Andrew,
    My favorite Nobel Prize was awarded to Fleming, Florey and Chain in 1945 for the discovery of penicillin. Along with revolutionizing medicine in the 1900's, penicillin serves as a fascinating reminder of what role luck can play in scientific discovery. Fleming himself acknowledged that if he had followed proper controls and was engaged in his then current field of research, penicillin probably would not have been discovered.
    • Feb 12 2012: This is a great example of how important scientific discoveries can come about by accident! The next important finding may not always be immediately predictable. Heres the story for anyone interested: http://history1900s.about.com/od/medicaladvancesissues/a/penicillin.htm
      • Feb 12 2012: Did you know that due to modern science adapting and making better medicine, supergerms are created? This continual process of making better medicine to combat stronger germs could cause the death of humanity when the germ becomes too powerful! Can this "good science" be "bad science" as time goes on? I find this astounding.
        • Feb 13 2012: Hi Ted,

          The development of resistance by uncontrolled uses of antibiotics was certainly understood even during Fleming's time. He may have been one of the earliest guys to sound the alarm, but I have to check that. Fortunately, I think that there is a limit to how "super" a super bug can get. Over the eons,Mother nature has been a potent generator of all the possible permutations of polypetides and glycopetides, etc, that can be developed to circumvent our defenses, with and without antibiotics. Unfortunately, due to solely economic reasons, research into discovering new antibiotics, of which we have only just begun to scratch the surface of, has significantly tapered off. Maintaining that chemical "arms race" by bio-medical research should be a priority, but sadly isn't.
  • thumb
    Feb 11 2012: I imagine Fritz Haber is the most convincing argument I can think of, from revolutionizing warfare to maximizing food output to a point where ~50% of humans alive today could no exist without its discovery and application. To date it is the single-most largest expenditure of energy on earth (~3% all energy used). His discovery also permitted the lengthening of WWI from a few months to 8 years, as the nitrogen produced would be a key ingredient in munitions that was otherwise trade embargoed from Chile in its mineral form.
    He is a case study on blind patriotism and the impact on his values and ethics, after all he earned the name "Father of Chemical Warfare". As a winner, he is an interesting character to say the least.
    For its application to the betterment of mankind, and the worsening of it (?), Fritz Haber is my most/least favorite (and the most interesting I know of) nobel winner.
    Do we need to cite sources?
    • Feb 12 2012: I did not expect there to be a figure who is someone's favorite and least favorite at the same time! That is really interesting. His discoveries can be seen as both harmful and helpful to humankind. I don't think you need to cite. A google search can show Fritz Haber is what you articulated.
    • thumb
      Feb 14 2012: Yes, I at once both lament and enjoy how discoveries can do massive amounts of good, or massive amounts of bad. I am fascinated by the people behind these experiments, and it's always hard for to know exactly what perspective to look from.

      To me, Haber is sort of the embodiment of the "evil scientist"--he made a scientifically sophisticated weapon, and even took part in directing its use on the battlefield. Yet at the same time, he can be credited with providing a way to sustain half the humans alive today.

      I find Heisenberg a similarly enigmatic figure. We like his Uncertainty Principle, but we don't like his politics (He worked as a physicist for the Nazis as they were trying to build a nuclear bomb). This bomb, of course, was never built and used, but his discoveries have revolutionized physics and technology.

      So how can we decide what to think of these scientists? This question evades answer. We can't judge them on all of these principles at once. This is what I mean when I say I enjoy the internal conflict over how I feel--These people are not 1-dimensional. The complexity of these characters is actually interesting--almost as interesting as the science!
  • Feb 11 2012: For sure Rita Levi Montalcini, who is today a hundred and something, is still very curious, communicates with the young generations and inspire them-check her facebook page! and has a great sense of humour. She and her cousin, Dr Sacerdoce de Lustig who made the most valuable research on Polio at the beginning of the century, where the 2 first women to be graduated in Medecine at the beginning of the century.
    I'm convinced she would deliver once of the best performances at TED.
    • Feb 12 2012: After reading the short Wiki about her, if she would agree to do a TED talk, I would certainly listen with baited breath. Even outside my field, there is nothing more meaningful to me than listening to the teachings of learned elders. There are always so many things to learn!

      I hope I reach the age and the wisdom to inspire the same feeling...I doubt both, but I do hope...
      • Feb 12 2012: Wow this is amazing! I wonder what wisdom she would have to impart on us.
  • thumb
    Feb 10 2012: http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2096389_2096388_2096378,00.html
    In the article above, Time describes its list of the top ten Nobel prize controversies. In most cases, it seems that the ideas themselves are prize worthy, but something about the person's past makes their prize questionable. For example, Cordell Hull won the Nobel prize for helping to establish the U.N. His case is considered controversial because six years earlier, Hull advised the denial of passage of a Jewish refugee ship into the U.S.; consequentially, the denial led to the death of many of those passengers.

    At least in this class of controversies, I feel that it is slightly unfair to frown upon these Nobel prize winners. Sure, they may have made a decision in the past that people are not in agreement with, but that shouldn't cloud the fact that they had a Nobel-prize-winning idea. While the standards for Nobel prizes are certainly high, we can't expect people to be absolutely perfect in every aspect. People make mistakes and it should certainly be acceptable to do so.
    • thumb
      Feb 13 2012: Hi Andrew,

      Thanks for this link! I completely agree with you about the controversies that you describe and I believe that a Nobel-prize-winning idea does not make the idea any less amazing because of a person's mistakes in the past. Similarly, I don't think "bad" science should be characterized by these mistakes.

      The controversy on Harald zur Hausen reminded me that the HPV link to cervical cancer might be one of my favorite Nobel-Prize-winning sciences. This discovery effects every young woman in the world who is able to access the HPV vaccine. The HPV vaccine protects against the two types of HPV that are responsible for causing 70% of cervical cancer cases. I'm glad Harald zur Hausen got recognition despite efforts made by pharmaceutical companies trying to take a stake in the drug. You can read about Harald zur Hausen's scientific process here: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/2008/hausen.html. And no, Michele Bachmann, I didn't become mentally retarded after having the vaccine.
    • thumb
      Feb 14 2012: Along the line of Nobel Prize controversies is the list of those who were unfairly left out of recognition for particular Nobel prize winning work or those who received recognition unjustifiably. Here are just a few instances that I have come across in my classes, I am sure there are more. One example is Jocelyn Bell Burnell who discovered radio pulsars, was not a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in physics awarded in 1974, but rather her supervisor Antony Hewish received instead. However, it was Bell and not Hewish who observed the anomaly which would lead to the discovery of pulsars, Hewish even went so far as to tell Bell that the anomaly was a result of human error.

      On a related note, Rosalind Franklin who passed away before Watson, Crick and Wilkins received the Nobel Prize for their work on nucleic acids, (most notably the discovery of the double helix), was not recognized for years for her contribution to the discovery. Nobel Prize rules aside with regard to honoring the work posthumously, her X-ray diffraction images of DNA were vital to Watson and Crick resolving the structure of DNA and the absence of her proper recognition is unfortunate to say the least.

      Finally, there is the case of the discovery of Insulin where Frederick Banting and John Macleod received the award as co-recipients. Banting at first refused to accept the award along with Macleod as he did not feel Macleod deserved the award as he felt the only contribution Macleod made was to provide a lab and a lab assistant Charles Best. Banting felt that Best and not Macleod deserved the award and when he finally agreed to accept the award split his money with Best to acknowledge Best's contribution. Whether, or not someone should be recognized with the Nobel Prize for just providing the economic means to accomplish the work is debatable however I think not and I believe Banting would agree.
      • thumb
        Feb 14 2012: I don’t think I have a favorite Nobel Prize winning science but a name that is frequently mentioned in my house and on which I’ve read a bit is George Emil Palade. He won the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine, together with Albert Claude and Christian de Duve, for the innovations in electron microscopy and cell fractionation (a major component of this was the discovery of the ribosome). He is most often acclaimed with laying the foundations of modern molecular cell biology.

        As for the comment about bad science, I think that only comes with falsifying data or taking credit for someone else’s work (sure, in the latter case, the science is still publicized but the moral code of not stealing is completely thrown out the window). We should also remember that all these prizes are never a single man’s work. Besides building on previous discoveries, more immediately, there is always the contribution of the fellow lab members working under the head of the lab.
    • thumb
      Feb 14 2012: Andrew,
      Your comment on Nobel Prize winners being considered controversial because of unfavorable pasts strikes me as being quite ironic. If you look at the origins of the Nobel prizes, Alfred Nobel started the Nobel committee so that he would be remembered for something good instead of for being the inventor of dynamite. If we question the integrity of the prize winners because of something they did in their past, we might as well question the integrity of the committee itself.
      I think its fitting that we honor those who have made mistakes in the past but have redeemed themselves with these prizes. They, like Nobel, deserve to be remembered for the good that they have done for the world as well as the bad.
  • thumb
    Feb 10 2012: I think many of the Nobel categories are becoming a bit dated and result in prizes that recognize brilliant but really quite tightly focused research. How about categories that reflect the huge issues of our day—sustainability (In the final analysis quite deeply related to Peace.) And, as you say, engineering. Major achievements in these areas would recognize and enhance efforts to lead our species to better and a more rational global occupancy.
  • thumb
    Feb 9 2012: Heisenberg got the nobel in 1932 for his work, including the uncertainty principle. i love the uncertainty principle! i find it really amusing. That when you look for something or try to observe something, it will change due to your observation. more technically put, if you try to precisely determine the position of a particle, you won't be able to ascertain the moment with much precision. A former professor has a note on his door that says "if I'm not in, invoke the uncertainty principle". so funny!

    I think what's interesting about this is that it seems quite logical. Heisenbergs theoretical experiment involved trying to observe an electron, but the only way to look at something is to shine light on it. By shining light on an electron or shooting a photon at it, you're putting energy into the electron, thereby changing it's original state (the one you wanted to observe)

    scientific version of we want what we cant have?
  • Feb 15 2012: I'm surprised nobody has mentioned António Egas Moniz as a least favorite: the guy who got the Nobel in Medicine in 1949 for "the discovery of the therapeutic value of leucotomy in certain psychoses" - i.e., lobotomies.
  • thumb
    Feb 14 2012: There has been many discussion about removing Economics as a Nobel Award worthy scientific endeavor due to an authority's overwhelming influence in directing the research that is absent in other Nobel Sciences.
  • Feb 12 2012: Probably Golgi and Ramón y Cajal (1906; individual staining of neurons although it only affects specific ones for some reason) but really, it's hard to say a favorite because each is so important. Good and bad science is hard to differentiate though. I mean, you can look at it empirically or through how much the discovery contributed to our understanding of a subject. The engineering thing could also be applied to math; I don't know if it's true but I heard the story behind math is because the creator was jealous that a mathetician stole his girlfriend away. There could be a similar story behind engineer or just that no one has argued for it long enough.
  • Feb 11 2012: She received the Nobel Prize of Phisiology or Medecine in 1986
  • Feb 11 2012: Dr. Jaroslav Heyrovský, czech scientist. He was a great electrochemist and for Nobel price was nominated for 18 times - in years 1934, 1938, 1940, 1944, 1947, 1950, 1952–1959 for chemistry, 1940 physics, 1948, 1949, 1953 in medicine. So he is my guy!
    • Feb 12 2012: That's a lot of nominations! I noticed that they are also for different fields of science. He finally won in 1959 for chemistry. I wonder how many prize winners have been in his position of being nominated a lot of times before winning, and the reasons for them winning with the science they had done.
    • thumb
      Feb 14 2012: Jiri,

      Looking through this fascinating conversation started by Andrew, I have been able to research all different types of interesting scientists and Noble Prize winners. However, I have found that Dr. Jaroslav Heyrovský is definitely the most interesting of all. The perseverance Dr. Jaroslav Heyrovský had was inspiring, as he was so close for so long, and finally won 25 years after being nominated 18 times. Furthermore, he was honored all around the world for all the great work he has done. It is incredible to be so talented in multiple fields like Dr. Jaroslav Heyrovský was. Thanks for sharing this, as his story is truly something to look up to.

  • thumb
    Feb 9 2012: That of Nikola Tesla, my Croatian fella. Diggit?