Monday, October 06, 2003


The Nobel Price for medicine and physiology has been awarded to Paul Lauterbur of the United States and Peter Mansfield of Britain, the developers of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), originally called Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR), and still called that in non-medical contexts - the use of MRI became common because patients are often frightened of the word "nuclear". These are extremely worthy winners, but the intersting thing is that the medicine price has actually been given to a breakthrough that is principally about medicine.

When the Nobel Prizes were introduced, the choice of subjects reflected which sciences had the highest profiles in the 1890s. Therefore there are three science prizes: physics, chemistry, and medicine. In the second half of the 20th century, there have I think been two breakthroughs that come above all others and which have changed the scientific world utterly - and which are in the proces of changing the world utterly without the adjective "scientific" being necessary. One is the invention of the computer, and the other is the unlocking of the genetic code and the consequent revolution in the biological sciences.

Biology has become perhaps the most important science of all. As there is no Nobel Prize for biology, the medicine prize has de-facto taken this role. The prizes have been given to people who have made biological breakthroughs in general, and if necessary the argument can be made that these will in most cases eventually filter there way through to medicine. In addition, chemistry has become less interesting a science in its own right, and the chemistry prize has also been given more and more frequently to people whose work probably qualifies as biology first and chemistry second.

Physics has remained physics, however. The subject is perhaps not the queen of the sciences it once was, but lots of interesting stuff is still being done.

And should there be a Nobel Prize for Computer Science? The trouble with computers is that a large portion of the world population now uses them, which might influence the award. If it were to exist, I think it should only be for people who have done revolutionary work - say the person who invented quicksort or the person who invented packet switching. (I think it would be best to avoid giving it to Bill Gates and Tim Paterson for MS-DOS, or the like). Mathematicians have been known to grumble about there being no Nobel Prize for mathematics. In a way this is now a shame. It could have evolved into a prize sometimes given to mathematicians and sometimes computer scientists. But because it had a nice theoretical name like "mathematics", the pressure to cheapen it would be weaker.

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