Nobel winners and losers

June 17, 2010

( -- Author Erling Norrby discusses how the Nobel Prizes for the sciences, while often awarding breakthrough efforts, also can miss pivotal findings that made a difference.

Scientists James Watson and Francis Crick published a now-famous paper in 1953 that described the double-helix structure of DNA, but it wasn’t until 1962 that the pair received a for the discovery.

“You would think that the fantastic contribution of James Watson and Francis Crick would be a hot topic for a Nobel Prize, but still in 1959 there was no nomination,” said Erling Norrby, a former member of the Nobel committee who has written a book,“Nobel Prizes and Life Sciences.”

Norrby, a virology researcher turned science historian at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, spoke at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) on June 9 as part of the Dean’s Distinguished Lecture Series. He focused on the nucleic acids DNA and RNA and their role in heredity as a way to share stories about the history of the prize. The talk was based on one of the chapters in his book.

Not long after scientist Gregor Mendel showed that traits in peas were inherited, a physician chemist in the 1800s named Friedrich Miescher isolated nucleic acids, but he did not understand their role in genetics. In 1910, nine years after the Nobels were established, Albrecht Kossel received one for his work on nucleic acids and proteins.

However, scientists and award judges were often drawn elsewhere, even when Oswald Avery and his colleagues identified DNA as genetic material in a 1944 paper. At the time, said Norrby, “The scientific community was not at all prepared to accept this pioneering contribution.” Indeed, it took until 1956 for Avery and his team to be considered for a Nobel, but by that time Avery had died. The Nobel committee does not award prizes posthumously.

Eventually, scientists became captivated by RNA, a nucleic acid similar to DNA but single-stranded. In 1989, two scientists received a Nobel Prize for showing that RNA can not only carry genetic information, but can also operate like an enzyme, catalyzing chemical processes in the cell. Last year, three scientists (including Jack Szostak from Harvard) shared a prize for showing how chromosomes, which carry genes, are protected by a part of the DNA strand called a telomere.

“It’s a never ending story,” said Norrby. “There are more surprises to come.” He predicts future prizes will result from the field of epigenetics, and from features that can control the activity — but not the DNA sequence — of genes and are inheritable.

Norrby noted that some eventual Nobel laureates are considered repeatedly. Kossel, for example, was nominated in 1902, reconsidered in 1903, 1904, and finally won in 1910. As a member of the in the late 1970s, Norrby recalled considering a nomination first proffered in 1937, the year he was born. Others win the first time they are nominated. Still others thought worthy (like Oswald Avery) never receive science’s top award.

“Of course we’re only human beings,” he said. “But this prize could never have the extraordinary position it has among prizes if it were not deeply respected among the scientific community.”

Explore further: Swedish probe into Nobel corruption to close: prosecutor

More information: Here’s a link to view a Webcast of this talk.

Related Stories

Stem cell pioneers among Nobel Prize candidates

October 4, 2009

(AP) -- Two Canadian scientists whose discovery of stem cells has paved the way for controversial research could be candidates for the 2009 Nobel Prize in medicine, the winners of which will be announced Monday.

Israeli woman potential Nobel chemistry winner

October 7, 2009

(AP) -- If Nobel judges are looking to improve the balance of women winning the chemistry prize, Israeli scientist Ada Yonath could be a strong candidate when the award is announced Wednesday.

Nobel Prizes honor a record 5 women in 2009

December 10, 2009

(AP) -- A record five women were among the 13 people awarded Nobel Prizes on Thursday, including a writer who depicted life behind the Iron Curtain and researchers who showed how chromosomes protect themselves from degrading.

Recommended for you

Ancient genome from Africa sequenced for the first time

October 8, 2015

The first ancient human genome from Africa to be sequenced has revealed that a wave of migration back into Africa from Western Eurasia around 3,000 years ago was up to twice as significant as previously thought, and affected ...

Rare braincase provides insight into dinosaur brain

October 8, 2015

Experts have described one of the most complete sauropod dinosaur braincases ever found in Europe. The find could help scientists uncover some of the mysteries of how dinosaur brains operated, including their intellectual ...

How much for that Nobel prize in the window?

October 3, 2015

No need to make peace in the Middle East, resolve one of science's great mysteries or pen a masterpiece: the easiest way to get yourself a Nobel prize may be to buy one.

The dark side of Nobel prizewinning research

October 4, 2015

Think of the Nobel prizes and you think of groundbreaking research bettering mankind, but the awards have also honoured some quite unhumanitarian inventions such as chemical weapons, DDT and lobotomies.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (3) Jun 18, 2010
Nobel prize has become a joke. When Obama and Gore get the prize for either doing nothing or writing fiction, you know this is a joke.

To show how political it is, if Obama was a Black Conservative how many think he would have received the prize? How many think if Al Gore Proved (not saying there is or isn't just a hypothetical question) that AGW was false, he would have received the prize?

The prize has become meaningless because it has been taken over by progressives. The only ones who take the prize serioulsy anymore are progressives.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.