Why no Nobel Prize for Biologists (and Mathematicians) ?

Why no Nobel Prize for Biologists (and Mathematicians) ?


In 1977, Carl Woese and George E. Fox published a seminal paper reporting on the discovery of third kingdom of life. Norm Pace described Woese’s contribution to biology bigger than Darwin’s.

With regard to Woese’s work on horizontal gene transfer as a primary evolutionary process, Professor Norman Pace of the University of Colorado at Boulder said, “I think Woese has done more for biology writ large than any biologist in history, including Darwin…. There’s a lot more to learn, and he’s been interpreting the emerging story brilliantly”.

Although Woese received a number of other prestigious awards, he never got a Nobel prize. In 2012 blog post, Jonathan Eisen made a strong case, but by then, Woese was 84 years old and passed away later that year.

Some arguments for why Carl Woese (and probably Norm Pace) deserves a Nobel Prize

I note I do not think Woese should win a Nobel for discovering the archaea. That was a groundbreaking finding but it does not fit well with the Nobel Prize categories. I think he should win it for the concept of molecular classification of microorganisms and applying this in general to the microbial world around us. This concept (expanded by Norm Pace and colleagues to uncultured microbes) revolutionized our approach to studying single microbes in the environment, to studying single microbes infecting people and to studying communities of microbes in and on people. And thus Woese and Pace in my opinion deserve the Nobel Prize for Medicine. I will be expanding on this in a future post …

One reason Woese was not ‘Nobel-worthy’ is that there is no Nobel prize in biology. The closest one being awarded is for medicine.

In 2003 the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded Woese the Crafoord Prize in Biosciences for his discovery of the third domain of life. The Crafoord award honors scientists whose work does not fall into any of the tags: [] categories covered by Nobel Prizes.

But why not? Why are the Nobel prizes offered for other physical sciences are for basic sciences (physics and chemistry), but the one for life science is in an applied area? The answer to that question is the same as why there is no Nobel prize for mathematics (Yes, we are aware of the bad joke that Alfred Nobel disliked mathematicians, because one of them had an affair with his wife

To understand, you need to go back to Europe of 19th century, where Alfred Nobel lived. In European society of that time, mathematicians were highly respected in academic circles, whereas physics, chemistry and medicine were all considered applied areas. Physics of that time was closer to what we call engineering today and quantum physics was not born. In fact, Max Planck, who made a big contribution to start the quantum revolution, was discouraged to study physics, because the field was considered to be saturated.

The Munich physics professor Philipp von Jolly advised Planck against going into physics, saying, “in this field, almost everything is already discovered, and all that remains is to fill a few holes.”[6] Planck replied that he did not wish to discover new things, but only to understand the known fundamentals of the field, and so began his studies in 1874 at the University of Munich. Under Jolly’s supervision, Planck performed the only experiments of his scientific career, studying the diffusion of hydrogen through heated platinum, but transferred to theoretical physics.

In 1877 he went to Berlin for a year of study with physicists Hermann von Helmholtz and Gustav Kirchhoff and mathematician Karl Weierstrass. He wrote that Helmholtz was never quite prepared, spoke slowly, miscalculated endlessly, and bored his listeners, while Kirchhoff spoke in carefully prepared lectures which were dry and monotonous. He soon became close friends with Helmholtz. While there he undertook a program of mostly self-study of Clausius’s writings, which led him to choose heat theory as his field.

In October 1878 Planck passed his qualifying exams and in February 1879 defended his dissertation, ber den zweiten Hauptsatz der mechanischen Wrmetheorie (On the second law of thermodynamics). He briefly taught mathematics and physics at his former school in Munich.

Most likely, Alfred Nobel wanted to take focus away from mathematics to other applied areas, and in that, he was immensely successful. Little did he realize, however, mathematics and mathematicians of previous era would go into physics and chemistry and lead to revolutionary fundamental discoveries. Nobody had any inkling of what would come in modern ‘biology’.


Written by M. //

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