Because Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously, they sometimes miss an extraordinary achievement that won't bear fruit until later, particularly if the discoverer dies young.  Rosalind Franklin, for instance, might have shared the 1962 prize that went to Watson and Crick for discovering the double-helix structure of DNA, but she died of cancer at age 37 in 1958.

Albert Einstein received his Nobel Prize not for the theory of relativity (special 1905, general 1911) or the mass-energy equivalence (1905) but for his 1905 work on the photo-electric effect.  I was not aware of the ugly political machinations behind this delayed and arguably misdirected award.  By the time the Nobel committee worked out its resentment of Einstein's Jewish heritage and pacifist tendencies, not to mention the controversy over whether the 1919 Eddington experiment had truly confirmed his work, Einstein had suffered the fate of Achilles:  the honor had been robbed of its value by the arbitrary partisanship of its awarders.
He that fights fares no better than he that does not; coward and hero are held in equal honour, and death deals like measure to him who works and him who is idle.
Einstein didn't return from his trip to the Far East to attend the 1922 ceremony in Stockholm.  In 1933, he renounced his German citizenship and moved to the U.S., where in 1939 he was instrumental in persuading President Roosevelt to make this country the world's first nuclear power.

Nobel Prizes are being awarded this week, so far without controversy.  The medicine award went to two stem cell researchers, one British and one Japanese, whose work involved not embryonic stem cells but the reprogramming of adult cells into induced pluripotent stem cells.  The physics award went to two men, one from Colorado and the other from Paris, whose work with observing quantum particles may lead to advances in supercomputers.


Joseph W. said...

Can't follow your link on the Einstein nobel (though I certainly will later). The Wiki on his Annus Mirabilies papers suggests the committee was waiting for experimental confirmation of Special Relativity, which came later. (I'm not sure about that as at least one test of General Relativity came in the early '20's but won't go chasing it now.)

Any one of the three big ones was Nobel-worthy...the photoelectric effect paper is foundational in quantum mechanics; the Brownian movement paper is accepted as the final proof of the atomic theory; and special relativity is...special relativity. I think a Nobel based on any one of them would not be misdirected.

Joseph W. said...

(oops, "mirabilis")

Grim said...

The physics prize sounds well-deserved.

Texan99 said...

Not that the photo-electric work was not Nobel-worthy, but not mentioning the other work was surprising. The article argued that it was politics. Another theory was that experimentation had not proceeded far enough to confirm relativity, but the Eddington experiments are (at least now) generally considered sufficient. The Nobel committee's qualms about them struck some people as a pretext.

The 2012 physics prize does sound solid, as does the one in medicine. Aside from the Peace Prizes, which have become ridiculous, and some questionable literature choices, I haven't read about any recent Nobel scandals. It's a surprisingly clean prize overall.

douglas said...

It does seem that the scientific awards are less politicized (excepting perhaps internal science community office politics) than the literature award, and certainly the worthless peace prize. A great deal of this difference may have to do with the structure of the organization and who decides which award winner.

As a tangent, I recently read a piece by the 2002 Literature winner, Imre Kertész entitled "The Union Jack". As I began reading, I became fearful that it was an overwrought piece by an over-well considered writer. By the end, I thought it among the best communications of how the self is trampled by tyranny. It was a powerful piece, and I can see why he was selected for the Nobel in 2002.