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"For more than a century, the Nobel Prizes have represented the zenith of scientific achievement. But are they an accurate reflection of science as it is done today?"
Sitting in the magnificent Blue Hall of the Stadshuset, listening to a trio of sopranos singing from a Swedish opera, while sipping from a flute of Gaston Chiquet Cuvée Tradition, it’s easy to be transported by the mythical dimensions of the evening. Here on the Riddarfjärden waterfront of central Stockholm on 10 December each year the world’s most exclusive science party celebrates the pinnacle of scientific achievement. Only a very select few get to sit on the table of honour with Sweden’s King Carl Gustaf, who annually rises to offer a toast in memory of Alfred Nobel.
But for some, the Nobel Prize has lost a little of its glow. Determining who should win, and for what, is subject to rules that were mostly drafted 114 years ago. At that time, science was a genteel endeavour carried out by brilliant individuals working, mainly, in isolation. That just three individuals are awarded for the pre-eminent advance in their field in any one year fits uncomfortably with the way science is done today. These days a breakthrough Nature paper is likely to devote half its title page to the names of contributing authors. And back-to-back with that paper, there’s likely to be another paper or two, describing related results from the same research.
One of the four Nobel Prizes awarded on the glittering Riddarfjärden waterfront in 2013 was the Nobel Prize in Physics, shared between Britain’s Peter Higgs and Belgium’s François Englert. In the 1960s both predicted the existence of what has come to be known as the Higgs boson. This particle is held to be responsible for giving other particles mass, making it the foundation for the entire Standard Model of physics. Their insight proved the power of theoretical physics in a way not seen since the days of Albert Einstein.
Yet the 2013 Nobel Prize for Physics also perfectly exemplifies the mounting doubts about the Nobels. It’s a growing controversy that is clearly not far from the minds of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences selection committee, even as they narrow the shortlist for this year’s prize.
Credit: SPL Creative/GETTY IMAGES
Peter Higgs is a little like the particle that bears his name. He’s not easy to find, scarcely interacts with others, and yet, when he moves through a crowd, people cluster around him as if some invisible force is drawing them closer.