The dark side of Nobel prizewinning research

October 4, 2015 by Hugues Honore
The statue representing Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel at the Stockholm Concert Hall in Stockholm
The statue representing Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel at the Stockholm Concert Hall in Stockholm

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.

Numerous Nobel prize controversies have erupted over the years: authors who were overlooked, scientists who claimed their discovery came first, or peace prizes that divided public opinion.

But some of the science prizes appear in hindsight to be embarrassing choices by the committees.

When the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize went to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, it was perhaps a way of making up for the Nobel "war prize" it awarded to German chemist Fritz Haber in 1918.

Haber was honoured with the chemistry prize for his work on the synthesis of ammonia, which was crucial for developing fertilizers for food production.

But Haber, known as the "father of chemical warfare", also developed poisonous gases used in trench warfare in World War I at the Battle of Ypres which he supervised himself.

After Germany's defeat in the war, "he didn't expect to win a prize. He was more afraid of a court martial," Swedish chemist Inger Ingmanson, who wrote a book about Haber's prize, told AFP.

"Some saw it as a Germanophile prize. There were people who had wanted Sweden to join the war alongside Germany."

The prize remains one of the most contested Nobels ever awarded—the jury had to be aware of Haber's role in, and the effects of, chlorine gas being used in the trenches. But he had also brought the world revolutionary fertilizers.

French chemist Victor Grignard, who also developed poisonous gases, won a Nobel prize too, but that was in 1912, before the outbreak of World War I and before their uses in warfare.

Odd timing

The 1918 controversy might have encouraged the Stockholm jury to think carefully about the laureates they choose after a conflict.

The 1962 Nobel Prize medal awarded to Dr. Francis Crick for discovering the structure of DNA

Yet in November 1945, just three months after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Nobel chemistry prize honoured the discovery of nuclear fission.

The laureate was another German, Otto Hahn, whose 1938 discovery was crucial to the development of atomic bombs.

However, Hahn never worked on the military applications of his discovery and upon learning, while in captivity as a prisoner-of-war in England, that a nuclear bomb had been dropped, he told his fellow captives: "I am thankful we (Germany) didn't succeed" in building the bomb.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences' choice is bewildering, especially given its apparent urgency right after the damages just wreaked by the bombs.

Nobel archives reveal that the Academy had wanted to honour Hahn already in 1940. As of 1944, he was considered by his peers as a "secret Nobel laureate" who just needed to wait until the end of the war to collect his prize.

According to a 1995 article in the scientific journal Nature, Hahn's nomination was supported by academics who saw him—the only candidate nominated for the Nobel Chemistry Prize in 1944—as a laureate worthy of the science prize regardless of political considerations. Other jury members would have preferred to wait to find out more about the US' top-secret war-time research on the bomb, but they were in the minority.

Hahn ultimately won the 1944 prize, though it was only awarded to him after the end of the war in 1945.

Scorned laureates

Hahn's discovery as such was not so controversial, only the later application of it.

Portrait taken 3 march 1959 German physical chemist Otto Hahn, decorated with chain of president of Max-Planck-Society, for his 80th birthday

The same cannot be said for some other Nobel research, including that of Portuguese neurologist Egas Moniz, who won the 1949 Nobel Medicine Prize "for his discovery of the therapeutic value of leucotomy in certain psychoses".

Today the brain surgery procedure is known as a lobotomy and is only used in rare circumstances. The Nobel Foundation's website notes soberly that the surgery was "controversial".

Bengt Jansson, a psychiatrist and former member of the medicine prize selection committee, wrote: "I see no reason for indignation at what was done in the 1940s as at that time there were no other alternatives!"

Chemical treatments for mental illnesses were later developed.

And then there are the laureates blasted by environmentalists.

A muslim livestock vendor covers his face, as Indian Municipal corporation workers spray DDT to prevent the spread of mosquito-b
A muslim livestock vendor covers his face, as Indian Municipal corporation workers spray DDT to prevent the spread of mosquito-borne dengue and chikungunya viruses

One year before Moniz, the medicine prize jury honoured Swiss scientist Paul Mueller for his discovery that DDT could be used to kill insects that spread malaria.

DDT was later banned worldwide, after it was discovered to pose a threat to humans and wildlife.

Nonetheless, pesticides went on to play a role in another Nobel.

In 1970, US biologist Norman Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize for introducing modern agricultural production techniques to Mexico, Pakistan and India, including genetic crossbreeding.

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plasmasrevenge
1.6 / 5 (7) Oct 04, 2015
Willard Libby was so obsessed with getting the Nobel for radiocarbon dating that he appears to have altered his data set. He desperately needed to show that average decay per minute per gram was constant over the entire globe. To demonstrate that, his 1949 value for seal oil shifted from 10.4 to 15.69 cpm/gm of carbon by 1951 (a 50% adjustment!). Other values were shifted by 20 - 27%.

If people were actually paying attention to the problems with radiocarbon dating, they'd find reasons to question every single one of his initial assumptions. Instead, the narrative that the only people who would ask these questions are creationists is widely adopted. And so the questions are never asked.

Compare the values in 1949 paper titled "Age Determination by Radiocarbon Content: World-Wide Assay of Natural Radiocarbon" with values in 1951 paper titled "Radiocarbon Dating, Memories and Hopes".
Szkeptik
2.3 / 5 (9) Oct 04, 2015
DDT was a huge deal an it was banned prematurely. Just a few more years and malaria would have been eradicated. The greens won and now malaria is as widespread and deadly as ever.
docile
Oct 04, 2015
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
docile
Oct 04, 2015
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Shootist
2.6 / 5 (5) Oct 04, 2015
The dark side of Nobel prizewinning?


Obama.
Captain Stumpy
4.2 / 5 (5) Oct 04, 2015
The most important findings blah blah blah overunity devices or cold fusion will be newer awarded...because they steal the jobs of physicists, not to extend them
@zephirTROLL
no, these things are ignored because they present no empirical evidence which can be validated and the experiments are not repeatable
OR
they violate the laws of physics

just because you want to believe doesn't mean it is real or in any way legitimate, much like your continued faith in aether, even though it has been absolutely falsified for decades
see: http://arxiv.org/...1284.pdf

also note: you have the ability to submit research as well as anyone else
all you have to do to win a nobel is submit a paper that is experimentally validated and produces CF working plant that will replace dependence on fossil fuels... i guarantee you will become an overnight hero

but, of course, that also means tight constraints to the scientific method and NO PSEUDOSCIENCE
there goes your future

docile
Oct 04, 2015
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
my2cts
3.9 / 5 (7) Oct 04, 2015
The dark side of Nobel prizewinning?


Obama.

Your only excuse is your stupidity.
Shootist
3 / 5 (4) Oct 04, 2015
The dark side of Nobel prizewinning?


Obama.

Your only excuse is your stupidity.


Truth bothers you? It was simply a dark day when President Obama was awarded the Peace Prize for doing Absolutely Nothing.

Say it again

Absolutely Nothing.
dan42day
5 / 5 (4) Oct 04, 2015
President Obama was awarded the Peace Prize for doing Absolutely Nothing.


Nonsense, he was given the award for NOT being George W. Bush.
my2cts
3 / 5 (2) Oct 05, 2015
@Shootist
Are you really carrying a gun ?
Anyway, define "truth".
You likely have a customised definition of it.

"Absolutely nothing" was a hell of a lot better than what his stupid predecessor did.
A sigh of relief travelled across the planet when the so-called republicans lost.

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