Saturday, October 12, 2002

Nobel science prizes and credibility

As someone who is at least trained as a scientist, I have always tended to see the Nobel Prizes from the physical scientist's point of view: the prizes in Physics, Chemistry and Medicine and Physiology are a big deal: Peace, Literature and Economics are a little suspect. The principal reason that the three science prizes are held in such high regard by scientists is that the selection committees over the years have done a terrific job. Nobel prizes have been consistently given to the right people. (The physics prize is the only one I am really qualified to comment on, and this year's is certainly once again an excellent choice. People who use enormous underground reservoirs of detergent to do groundbreaking research into the fundamental interactions of the universe deserve to be rewarded for it). There is perhaps a problem with categories: the most groundbreaking of research these days is done in things like biology and computing science, and this was not the case when Nobel created the prizes, but the prizes have generally managed to cope with this. The medicine and physiology prize has been essentially treated as the "Nobel Prize for Biology" for 50 years now, and in recent years (including this year) the chemistry prize has been used to reward biological discoveries as well. There have been one or two instances of the physics prize being awarded to computing related subjects (Brian Josephson for instance) although it has not happened in a major way. (Josephson is Cambridge's equivalent of John Nash: an utterly brilliant man who isn't all that stable, sadly). If there was a Nobel Prize for Mathematics, Computing could perhaps fit into this. However, there isn't, and founding a computing Nobel the way an Economics Nobel was founded would be a fine thing. I can't imagine it would be too hard to find organisations that would put up the money, even in these post tech bubble days.

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