The Politics, Rivalries, and Sweet Science Behind the Nobel Prize Decisions

The state of the universe.
Oct. 10 2013 8:14 AM

Who Will Win a Nobel Prize?

Everything you need to know about the contenders, rivalries, scandals, and politics of the famous awards.

The Nobel Prize Awards Ceremony in 2011.
The 2011 Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm

Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images.

The Nobel Prize in literature in 2013 was awarded to Alice Munro, who the Nobel committee called a "master of the contemporary short story." Last year, Slate book editor Dan Kois picked her for a prize and said her "work has evolved and grown in fascinating, boundary-shattering ways." The original Oct. 3, 2012, story about our Nobel predictions is below.

Laura Helmuth Laura Helmuth

Laura Helmuth is Slate's science and health editor. 

We’re coming up on the most wonderful time of the year for science fans: Nobel Prize week. Science makes it to the front pages only a few times annually: when cancer research gets hyped, when a panda cub is born (and then dies), or when a natural disaster kills many thousands of people in the developing world or tumbles chimneys in a major media market. But starting this Monday, we’re going to read about amazing breakthroughs in biology, physics, and chemistry. They’ll be followed by those lesser Nobels, in peace and literature, and the faux Nobel in economics, technically known as the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel.

As with the Olympics, it’s more fun to follow the competition if you know who the contenders are. And as with Olympic-level athletics, Nobel-level science has plenty of rivalries, scandals, and miscarriages of justice. The scientist who got a Nobel for the discovery of the antibiotic streptomycin took credit for his student’s work. Margaret Burbidge, Geoffrey Burbidge, William Fowler, and Fred Hoyle discovered that most chemical elements were forged in dying stars; only physicist Fowler was awarded a Nobel, possibly because of a bias against astronomers by the physics committee.* Two teams simultaneously discovered that our universe is not just expanding but accelerating in its expansion. There was a lot of tension between them over who should get credit, which was mostly resolved last year when the Nobel committee settled the matter by picking its three laureates.

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A lot of the drama comes from the somewhat arbitrary decision by the Nobel Foundation that a maximum of three people can share most prizes (the Peace Prize can go to groups). As Scientific American points out, that’s just not how science is done anymore. Given the three-person rule, though, it’s fun to watch, from a safe distance, as scientists in a crowded field engage in fevered one-upmanship. Researchers from the two teams that sequenced the human genome haven’t said a kind word about one another since Bill Clinton hauled them to the White House to celebrate the achievement.

So who are the top contenders? Slate polled some smart people who follow these things and asked them what we should watch for this year. Here are our tips (you can still place your bets), in the order in which the prizes will be announced: medicine, physics, chemistry, peace, economics, and literature.

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

Update, Oct. 8: The Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine was awarded to John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka for their work on turning mature cells into stem cells. Slate’s health care columnist Darshak Sanghavi and Science magazine editor John Travis both predicted Yamanaka’s win.

Slate’s health care columnist Darshak Sanghavi, chief of pediatric cardiology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School:

Kazutoshi Takahashi and Shinya Yamanaka of Japan for discovering in 2007 that normal human cells have a set of four genetic switches that allow the creation of pluripotent stem cells. Though challenges remain, this discovery paves the way for scientists to create personalized stem cells from anyone and then program them to form any type of cell in the body.

For my off-the-beaten-path long shot, I'd like to see a prize for Donald Berwick, the pediatrician and founder of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement. He applied principles of industrial quality and efficiency for the first time on a large scale to medical care, and in the process he focused on improving the terrible systematic defects in medical care that cost thousands of lives each year across the world.

His prize might be shared with Lucian Leape, the author of the Institute of Medicine report, “To Err Is Human,” which identified the massive costs and problems of medical errors and inadequate delivery of medical care.

Slate contributor Vaughan Bell, a clinical and research psychologist at King’s College London:

Some of the folks associated with optogenetics would be at the top of my list.

John Travis, an editor for Science magazine’s news department who covers molecular and cell biology:

I’m notoriously bad at conjuring up who might win, and one has to think back five to 10 years ago given the normal time lag. Here is my pure speculation.

Shinya Yamanaka for induced pluripotent stem cells is the obvious choice, but the work may be too recent. I wonder if they might add Jamie Thomson for embryonic stem cells and even John Gearhart for embryonic germ cells for a stem cell trio.

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