Chemistry Laureates Help Celebrate Nobel Centennial in Chemical & Engineering News

Participants at the Nobel Centennial Symposium included (standing far left) Chemical Heritage Foundation President Arnold Thackray.

December 4, 2000 - Washington, DC

By Sophie Wilkinson

What does it take to win the Nobel Prize in chemistry? What puts a scientist on the track toward prize-winning research? And what is the role of a Nobel Laureate in society?

These were some of the questions addressed by a panel of chemistry Nobel Laureates and other speakers during the Chemical Heritage Foundation's Nobel Centennial Symposium, held Nov. 9, 2000 at its headquarters in Philadelphia. The symposium celebrated the creation of the Nobel Foundation, established on June 29, 1900, and the presentation of the first Nobel Prizes the following year. This year's Nobel Prizes will be awarded on Dec. 10 in Stockholm.

Alfred B. Nobel (1833-96) described himself as a superidealist, but also as a misanthrope, according to Tore Frängsmyr, professor of the history of science at Uppsala University, in Sweden. The discoverer of dynamite, Nobel considered inherited wealth to be a misfortune that encourages apathy, so he left most of his fortune as an endowment for annual prizes in chemistry, physics, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace (the prize in economics was not started until 1969).

Many of Nobel's countrymen criticized the international nature of the prizes, believing they should be reserved for Swedes, Frängsmyr said. Controversy continues to dog the prizes even now. For instance, Nobel specified that the awards should go to those who had "conferred the greatest benefit on mankind" during the preceding year. But, Frängsmyr said, "many prizes are for contributions made 30 or 40 years ago," a delay that some consider to be too long. But it would be difficult to reduce that backlog since "there are so many good candidates. Also, you have to wait to see the usefulness of a new discovery or theory."

Nobel Prizes also stir up controversies over whom they leave out. "You can only have three laureates for the same prize," Frängsmyr noted, though in some cases "it would be more fair to give it to a team."

This restriction is unfortunate, given that teamwork is one of the hallmarks of science. Science is "a very social thing," commented Harvard University chemistry professor Dudley R. Herschbach, who won the Nobel Prize in 1986. "You inherit from others to create something lovely that you can pass on. Your mentors and students are part of this. It's a biological thing." One example cited was German physicist Arnold J. W. Sommerfeld, who had a number of students who received Nobel Prizes--including Wolfgang Pauli and Peter Debye--though he never received one himself...

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