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.

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My pick is certain to rankle the most hard core of chemists, because the discovery leans more toward molecular biology than pure chemistry. But there is no Nobel Prize in biology, and the Nobel committee seems to feel obligated to give them our prize every three years or so. As the last two prizes have gone to physical and organic chemistry, the biologists are probably due once again.

That’s who I think will win the Nobel Prize—if not this year, then soon. If you want to know who I think should win the Nobel Prize, it is chemist Carl Djerassi for work leading to the development of the birth control pill. Starting with chemicals isolated from Mexican wild yams, Djerassi and his co-workers developed synthetic methods for the preparation of compounds that mimic the hormones responsible for regulating pregnancy. Although the invention of the pill had profound medical and sociological implications, I’ve assigned relatively long odds to Djerassi (at 99-1) because it is widely assumed that if the Nobel committee had wanted to recognize this discovery, it would have already done so. The work dates back to the 1950s!

The Nobel Peace Prize

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Will Dobson, Slate’s politics and foreign affairs editor:

Like anything, there are good peace prizes and bad peace prizes. The good ones recognize individuals or organizations that actually did something. Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo and Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi are prime examples. But sometimes the Nobel committee misses. It doesn't so much recognize people who are doing the heavy lifting as much as try to ride popular political currents. Whether you think Barack Obama deserved a Nobel Peace Prize—he obviously didn't—the first black U.S. president doesn't need a new piece of hardware for his trophy case.

So, if the committee wants to be guided to where it could actually do some good, it should consider someone whose ideas or actions are actually bringing change. Near the top of that list should be Gene Sharp, the once obscure Harvard researcher whose lifelong study of dictatorship and strategic nonviolence has infected thousands across the globe. I can personally attest to the reach of Sharp's research. In one authoritarian capital after another, I saw dog-eared copies of Sharp's work on the bookshelves of dissidents and human rights defenders. Modern authoritarians from Burma, Venezuela, Russia, Iran, and elsewhere denounce his work—because they fear it. His thin volume, From Dictatorship to Democracy, is considered required reading for those who are trying to upend tyranny, and it is getting read. The Nobel committee champions the notion of expanding peace. Who better than the man whose ideas have helped inspire peaceful democratic change in so many countries? That is, of course, if they want to hand out one of the good ones this year.    

June Thomas, a Slate culture critic:

My pick would be Asma Jahangir, a Pakistani human rights lawyer. She was written about in The New Yorker five years ago.

David Plotz, Slate’s editor:

Bill and Melinda Gates, for their work on malaria and vaccines.

Dan Engber, a columnist for Slate:

I’m fond of the Ig Nobel peace prize pick from some years back: Daisuke Inoue, inventor of karaoke. Here’s Inoue’s 2004 acceptance speech:

Hello everyone. I am Daisuke Inoue. I am from Japan. I am the last samurai—but Tom Cruise couldn't come ... I am very happy to be here to be awarded the Ig Nobel peace prize. One time I had a dream to teach people to sing, so I invented karaoke. I didn't know it would be the start of something big. Now more than I ever, I want to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.

Although there have been some cases of karaoke-related violence in the Philippines and the United States, so maybe that’s not such a good idea.

The Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel

Matt Yglesias, Slate’s business and economics correspondent:

None of the folks who won last year had ranked very highly in predictive surveys that I saw—which means there are some likely suspects left over. That includes Paul Romer and Robert Barro for work in growth theory (which hasn't gotten a Nobel in a long time now), Douglas Diamond for the basic model of bank runs and financial panics, and Jean Tirole (possibly in conjunction with Diamond), a leading game theorist who has also done important work in financial regulation.

I'd love to see it go to William Baumol, who doesn't seem to rank highly in others' predictions. He has done the core work on why there's so little productivity growth in sectors like health care and education and what follows from that.

The Nobel Prize in Literature

Katy Waldman, a Slate editorial assistant:

In the poetry world, I would not be super surprised to see Lebanese poet Adonis (Ali Ahmed Said) showered with glory. A lot of people were surprised when last year’s Nobel went to Tomas Tranströmer instead. Adonis’ poems are steeped in Arab mythology but not dependent on it—and he’s experimented with nontraditional forms, too (prose poems, poems with shifting meters).

Otherwise, I’m kind of rooting for Philip Roth! Although Joyce Carol Oates would be nice, too.

David Haglund, the editor of Slate’s Brow Beat culture blog:

At this time last year, the betting site Ladbrokes gave Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer 7-1 odds to win the Nobel Prize, second only to perennial also-ran Adonis. Granted, the odds aren't always nearly so predictive, but the top of the list does offer plausible choices again this year: Two Asian novelists, Haruki Murakami of Japan and Mo Yan of China, occupy the top spots. No Asian writer has won since Gao Xingjian in 2000, and it wouldn't surprise me if the Nobel committee looked East for this year's laureate. The place I wouldn't look to is Europe, where nearly all of the recent recipients have come from. My personal guess: Chinua Achebe, whose much-anticipated memoir has just come out in the United Kingdom. He's been touted as a possible winner for years, and since the Nobel only goes to living authors, the committee may be running out of time to honor him.

Dan Kois, Slate’s books editor:

Who's the frontrunner for the Nobel Prize in Literature? If you ask the lads at Ladbrokes, it's Haruki Murakami, who's down for 5-1 odds, although Ladbrokes also gives credence to the chatter that pops up every year that the aging hippies on the prize committee might just give it to Bob Dylan. (For the record: No way.) From the list of other favorites I'd pluck Korean poet Ko Un and the puckish Chinese novelist Mo Yan as likely bets. But I'd be delighted if the prize went this year to one of two Canadian women whose work has evolved and grown in fascinating, boundary-shattering ways: Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro. (Also, 500-1 for E.L. James seems way low.)

Correction, Oct. 4, 2012: This article stated that Margaret Burbidge, Geoffrey Burbidge, William Fowler, and Fred Hoyle discovered that most chemical elements were forged in dying stars, but only Hoyle was awarded a Nobel. Fowler, not Hoyle, received the prize.

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