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.

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.

Thomas Starzl is a decent possibility for his work on organ transplants and rejection. He just won the Lasker Prize this year. They did give a Nobel on the topic already, which might hurt his chances.

I think Jeff Gordon may eventually win a Nobel for the microbiome, but a colleague here says it's too soon—that the microbiome hasn't proven its medical worth yet.

The Nobel Prize in Physics

Slate contributor Charles Seife, a journalism professor at New York University:

We have to get one thing out of the way first. It's not going to be for the Higgs. It's too early. Even if the Higgs evidence from CERN was hammer-hitting-you-on-the-head conclusive (which it isn't), it would be a few years before the Nobel committee would likely award a prize.

For me, the big news in physics in the past 15 years comes from cosmology. A large set of new observations confirmed a number of big predictions about the way we thought the universe worked—and revealed a whole bunch of things that we didn't expect at all. For example, last year's Nobel went to Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt, and Adam Riess; they studied ultradistant supernovae, and by looking at how fast those exploding stars were receding into the distance, they discovered that the universe is full of "dark energy," a mysterious force that is forcing the universe to expand ever faster. I think this is just the beginning of a new rush of cosmology Nobels.

The single person I most want to win the Nobel is Jim Peebles at Princeton University. He was part of the team that predicted the cosmic microwave background—the leftover glow from the hot, young universe shortly after the Big Bang. In the early 1970s, along with Jerry Ostriker, Peebles ran some computer simulations that strongly implied that galaxies would fly apart without something else, some unseen ingredient, to bind the galaxy together more strongly. We now call that ingredient "dark matter." However, I predict that the long-overdue dark matter Nobel will go to a very deserving Vera Rubin and other experimentalists. What I think should win Peebles the Nobel Prize is that he, along with a number of other scientists (Edward Harrison, Yakov Zel'dovich, and J. T. Yu) made a very specific prediction about how the cosmic microwave background—which is incredibly uniform—would show tiny little hot and cold spots of certain sizes once we looked hard enough. Sure enough, in the past decade, their prediction has been confirmed by a number of experiments. (Such as the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, or WMAP—which may eventually yield a Nobel for Charles Bennett, David Spergel, and Lyman Page.) Also worthy of mention are Rainier Sachs and Arthur Wolfe, who made a somewhat different (and also recently confirmed) prediction about how dark matter distorts the cosmic microwave background.

Of course, there's a good dose of politics involved. If a candidate has pissed off enough of the wrong people, there's no way he'll win the Nobel, no matter how deserving. There is also Old World vs. New World politics: It'll be very interesting to see whether Geoff Marcy or Paul Butler get to share a Nobel with Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz for the discovery of extrasolar planets.

So what's on tap for this year? I don't think it will be cosmology, as last year's prize went to that field. The Nobel committee seems to want to rotate among the fields of physics, as well as giving prizes for practical inventions and the occasional nod to theorists.

I think that it's high time that some of the work in quantum computation and quantum information theory gets a Nobel. Depending on how the committee divvies it up, it could go to any number of people, such as Ray Laflamme, Charles Bennett, Gilles Brassard, Chris Monroe, David Wineland, Seth Lloyd, Neil Gershenfeld, Ike Chuang, David Deutsch, and Peter Shor. (Shor, in particular, had two big insights that showed that it was both possible to build quantum computers and that they would be useful things to build.) Even more fundamental is Alain Aspect's gorgeous 1982 demonstration of quantum "spooky action at a distance"—he should definitely win the Nobel, perhaps sharing it with Anton Zeilinger, who's doing exquisite experiments that, among other things, probe the border between the quantum realm and the normal macroscopic world we're all familiar with.

I think there will probably be some pressure to give the Nobel to someone in solid-state physics or cold condensed matter physics or perhaps an inventor of some practical device, but if I had to put my money on one person, I think I'd put it on Aspect.

Slate contributor Geoff Brumfiel, a physics reporter for Nature:

The obvious story in physics this year has been the Higgs particle, but it seems unlikely that it will get a prize. For one thing, nominations began before this summer's announcement. For another, we're still not entirely sure what we've found. More data will be released next month and again in December. Without that additional data, it would be unusually daring of the Nobel committee to make an award for anything Higgsish.

Of course, that doesn't rule out making an award to Higgs and others for the theoretical prediction of a Higgs particle, but that would create its own problems. Adrian Cho wrote that there are a number of theorists who all predicted the Higgs at the same time. Since the Nobel can only go to three, it has the potential to be controversial.

The smart money here at Nature Towers is on specially structured materials that do cool stuff to light. As anyone who wears glasses knows, dense materials bend light. The denser the stuff, the more the bend, but it always goes in one direction (toward the "normal," or a line perpendicular to the surface). Metamaterials are cleverly engineered structures that can bend light the opposite way, away from the normal. The most hyped use for them is "cloaking" objects from view, which, while theoretically possible, is probably too tough to be practical anytime soon. But metamaterials and the principles behind them are already finding use in electronics.

The father of the field is a guy named John Pendry at Imperial College in London. He could end up sharing the prize with someone else who did clever things with structures—Thomas Ebbesen, for example, who found a way to pass light through holes far smaller than people thought was possible. It's called extraordinary optical transmission and has potential uses in data storage.

The physics gurus over here also keep bringing up something called the Aharonov-Bohm and Berry Phases. These are complex quantum effects I only vaguely understand, so I'm praying it's not those.

Adrian Cho, physics reporter for Science’s news department:

In the past, I've been able to pick people who would win within the next few years, although never on the right year. For example, it was pretty clear that Ray Davis would get it for measuring neutrinos from the sun and that Kobayashi and Maskawa would win it for their explanation of an asymmetry in particle physics that predicts three kinds of quarks. And I did, in fact, ask researchers about both of these possibilities before these folks got the prize. In both those cases, there was an experimental development that made it seem more likely that they would win. I don't have a strong suspicion like that now—the Higgs thing isn't likely to hit this year because nominations closed in February.

If I had to stick my neck out, I would guess Vera Rubin for measuring galaxy rotation curves and inferring the presence of dark matter. She really ought to win one of these years. Chuck Bennett for the WMAP satellite could win, but he may have to wait a while longer, especially as a cosmology finding won last year. Once you get into condensed matter physics, it's a lot harder to predict.

There is also an idea that is so elegant it deserves the Nobel on those grounds alone—John Pendry's transformation optics, which is the theory behind cloaking. Basically, he started with the idea from general relativity that warped space-time can bend the path of light and then figured out a recipe for mimicking that bending by tailoring the optical properties of a metamaterial in unwarped space. The challenge is to actually achieve the spatially varying optical properties required by the mathematical transformation, which so far has been done only imperfectly. But the idea itself is so pretty, it's the kind of thing that makes a physicist's toes curl.

Whatever it is, chances are that after it's given, it will seem like an obvious winner. That's usually the case.

Slate contributor Jennifer Ouellette, science writer and blogger at Cocktail Party Physics:

I don't usually engage in the annual speculation or betting pools, but I do follow the discussions pretty closely.

The discovery of the Higgs boson is by far the biggest physics news of the year, but it's probably premature to give it a Nobel. There was a time when the discovery of any new particle was cause for a Nobel Prize. That was also a time when one to three people could make the discoveries; such is no longer the case. The reason this might not win a Nobel Prize is because the prize is limited to three individuals, and thousands contributed to the discovery of the Higgs. That's not even counting all the theorists who first developed the notion—including but not limited to Peter Higgs. Expect this to be a contentious discussion wherever particle physicists are gathered: Who gets credit?

Metamaterials have a negative index of refraction, akin to tossing a pebble in a pond and seeing the ripples move inward instead of outward. This sounds impossible, but it's not. Metamaterials have fascinating optical properties, needless to say, and expect to see them used in lenses, for advanced microscopy, and as cloaking mechanisms to make objects invisible—at least to radar, if not visible light. Those most commonly associated with it are Victor Veselago, John Pendry, David Smith, Xiang Zhang, Sheldon Schultz, and Ulf Leonhardt (who has also done interesting work on artificial black holes). 

Photonic crystals are found in nature: opals and butterfly wings are the best examples. But their unique structure makes them the equivalent in optics to semiconductors in electronics. They are tunable, i.e., they only allow light of certain energies to pass through them, and that makes them ideal for practical applications. The top contenders for the Nobel would be Eli Yablonovitch, Shawn Lin, John Joannopoulis, and possibly Sajeev John. 

Personally, I am rooting for Vera Rubin for cold dark matter, based on Fritz Zwicky's 1933 assertion that individual galaxies were moving so quickly that they should be able to escape from a galaxy cluster if visible mass was the only thing contributing to the cluster's gravitational pull. He proposed the existence of dark matter to account for the observational data. Rubin was one of the first to directly observe Zwicky's predicted effects in the rotation of spiral galaxies, and she'd likely share the prize with Marc Davis and Joel Primack. I would love to see Rubin get some recognition for this work; only two women have won the physics prize, Marie Curie in 1903 and Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963. 

Who's going to actually win? It's always a bit of a crap shoot. But last year's was for the accelerating universe, and the year before that was for graphene (materials). So some of the more esoteric contenders in quantum information or quantum teleportation might be due.

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Sam Lord, postdoctoral chemist at the University of California, Berkeley, and blogger at Everyday Scientist:

The line between chemistry and other fields (especially biology) is often blurred, and that's a wonderful thing; but this fact sometimes results in a chemistry Nobel Prize being awarded for a decidedly biological discovery (like the 2009 prize for the structure of the ribosome). This may be exacerbated by the fact that the physiology or medicine prize tends to go to things directly related to health, and the chemistry prize often is used to cover the more basic biological science feats. Personally, I think it is a testament to the central position the field of chemistry holds in the Venn diagram of science.

My top prediction is for single-molecule spectroscopy. In 1989, W.E. Moerner at IBM (now at Stanford) was the first to use light (lasers) to perform measurements on single molecules. Before this, millions or trillions of molecules or more were measured together to detect an average signal. His amazingly difficult feat required ultrasensitive detection techniques, perfect samples, and temperatures just above absolute zero! A year later, Michel Orrit in France observed the fluorescent photons from a single molecule. With those early experiments, Moerner and others laid the experimental groundwork for imaging single molecules.

Single-molecule spectroscopy and imaging has become a subfield unto itself. I performed my Ph.D. research in the Moerner lab, and I know firsthand that the technique reveals events that would otherwise be hidden in averages of "bulk" measurements. Biophysics, the field of understanding how cells and biomolecules operate on a physical level, is particularly aided because rare events can have major effects in biology. (Think of a single cell mutating and then dividing into a tumor.) For example, Sunney Xie at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (now at Harvard) performed the early work on how individual enzymes experience multiple states, which otherwise would be averaged away in a bulk experiment. More recently, imaging single molecules has been instrumental in novel "super-resolution" techniques that reveal structures in cells at tenfold higher resolution than ever available before. Several companies (Pacific Biosciences, Helicos, Illumina, Life Technologies) have either released or are developing products that use single-molecule imaging to sequence individual strands of DNA. My prediction is bolstered by others along the same vein. In 2008, Moerner won the Wolf Prize in Chemistry, which is often considered a harbinger for the Nobel. More importantly, The Simpsons were betting on Moerner in 2010. Of course, that was Milhouse's prediction, and maybe it's more reasonable to go with Lisa.

My other prediction is for biomolecular motors (aka molecular motors). These are proteins in cells that move important cargo around, and on a more practical level, make muscles contract. Ron Vale (now at University of California, San Francisco) and Michael Sheetz (now at Columbia) discovered kinesin, a protein that walks along tiny tubes and pulls cargo to different parts of the cell. This is supremely important because it would take far too long (months in some cases) for diffusion alone to bring nutrients and signaling molecules to all parts of the cell. (Interestingly, kinesin was discovered from the neurons of squids because they are extraordinarily long cells!) Jim Spudich (at Stanford), Sheetz, Vale, and others have developed many important techniques for studying the actions of these tiny machines. Spudich shared this year’s Lasker Award, which many see portending a Nobel, with Vale and Sheetz.

It's hard not to allow hope to creep into almost anything we humans do, and I have clearly failed to prevent my own desires from influencing my predictions: I would be thrilled to see either of the above discoveries—or any that I list on my blog—win a prize. But there are many, many deserving scientists who have discovered amazing things and helped millions of people. Unfortunately, only a handful of these amazing individuals will be awarded the ultimate recognition in science. So it goes.

Paul Bracher, a postdoctoral chemist at Caltech and blogger at ChemBark:

Predicting a Nobel Prize in any given year is like trying to predict which film would win a super-Oscar for best picture over the last three decades: There’s a limited number of legitimate contenders, but any of them have a relatively small shot of winning. I arrive at my detailed set of odds using a complex, time-tested formula that is two-thirds educated guesswork, one-third gut instinct, and 100 percent likely to displease everyone with an opinion.

If I were forced to make a single pick for this year’s prize in chemistry, I’d choose Pierre Chambon, Ronald Evans, and Elwood Jensen for their discovery and investigation of nuclear hormone receptors. These scientists were the leaders in figuring out how hormones such as estrogen can serve as chemical messengers to tweak our biochemistry by turning specific genes on and off. They discovered a superfamily of proteins that recognize the presence of hormones and accompany them to the nucleus of the cell, where genes are regulated. In this way, hormones can issue orders like “STORE MORE FAT!” to a cell, and we can alter the receptors or fool them with synthetic molecules to countermand these orders. How hormones turn genes on and off has profound implications for the treatment of diseases such as breast cancer, so these scientists could easily snag the Nobel in medicine rather than chemistry. The discovery has already been recognized by a number of pre-Nobel prizes, including a Lasker Award in 2004 and a Wolf Prize in 2012. 

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

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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