by Ashutosh Jogalekar
The Nobel Prizes in science will be announced this week. For more than a century the prizes have recognized high achievement in physics, chemistry and medicine. Some scientists crave the prizes so much that they get obsessed with them. A prominent, world-famous chemist once had lunch with my graduate school advisor. After a few minutes he went off on a tirade against the Nobel committee, cursing them for not giving him the prize. He never got it, and he never got over it. The Nobel can bring fame and recognition, but it can also make the lives of those who live for them miserable.
A human prize created by a human committee based on the will of a human who established it to atone for a better method of killing people should not cause people such agony. And yet, in many ways, the prizes reflect all that is good and bad about human nature. The physicist Phillip Lenard later turned out to be a Nazi who denounced Einstein and his relativity. The celebrated Werner Heisenberg wasn’t a Nazi, but he controversially participated in work toward an atomic weapon in Germany during the war. Fritz Haber made an even more damning pact with the devil. Haber and his collaborator Carl Bosch kept alive, by one measure, one third of the world’s population by inventing a process to manufacture ammonia for fertilizers from nitrogen in the air. Haber won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1918, right after he had spent the First World War inventing chemical weapons that led to the deaths of tens of thousands. António Moniz who won the prize in medicine in 1949 pioneered the highly controversial procedure of lobotomy which, even though it seemed like a good idea then, incapacitated thousands. And William Shockley who co-invented the transistor and inaugurated Silicon Valley later became infamous for promoting racist theories of intelligence. The moral landscape of Nobelists even in science is ambiguous, so one can imagine how much worse it would be and in fact is in areas like peace and economics. Read more »