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Book Review The Politics of Excellence Behind the Nobel Prize in Science By Robert Marc Friedman.

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The Politics of Excellence: Behind
the Nobel Prize in Science
By Robert Marc
Friedman. Times
Books, Henry Holt
and Company, New
York 2001. xv þ
379 pp., hardcover
$ 30.00.—ISBN
Early every October almost everyone
looks forward expectantly to the
announcement of the Nobel Prize recipients. This annual anticipation is so
familiar that we seem to think that the
Prize has always been with us. Yet this
ne plus ultra of achievement in “five
fields of culture” (chemistry, physics,
physiology or medicine, literature, and
peace) is only 101 years old. It represents the highest recognition that scientists, writers, statesmen, and other individuals can receive, and the only one
with which the general public is familiar.
A sixth field, economics, was added in
1969, but it is funded separately by the
National Bank of Sweden. The Prizes
bring the laureates handsome cash
awards (about one million US dollars
in 2002), but the honor and distinction
that they convey is treasured even more.
In 2001 the centenary of the first
Nobel Prizes was celebrated with various activities such as symposia, exhibitions, and meetings in Sweden and
Norway, to which all living laureates
were invited. Commemorative postage
stamps were issued by several countries,
including Sweden, the United States,
Great Britain, Vietnam, and Monaco.
Of the numerous books and articles
published in connection with the centenary, The Politics of Excellence, which
presents an unprecedentedly detailed
behind-the-scenes study of the Prizes
in chemistry and physics, is one of the
best, most readable, and most meticulously documented.
In 1974 the Nobel Foundation
relaxed the statutes requiring that all
deliberations concerning the Prizes be
kept secret and permitted access to
archival materials by qualified scholars
for purposes of historical research, provided these documents were at least 50
years old, thus allowing an “inside view”
of the world9s most prestigious award. In
1980 Robert Marc Friedman, Professor
of the History of Science at the University of Oslo, Norway (formerly of the
University of California, San Diego),
who is one of the few professional
historians of science researching
modern Swedish science, was invited to
work in the archives. For two decades he
received support for his studies of the
Prize from research foundations in the
United States, Sweden, and Norway.
Friedman also used numerous other
sources, such as the private archives of
the members of the Nobel committees,
who play such a crucial role in the
selection process, as well as collections
of unpublished papers in Sweden,
Norway, Finland, Denmark, Germany,
England, and the United States. In his
own words (p. ix), his book “explores
the history of why and how various
people used the Nobel Prize to further
their own scientific, cultural, and personal agendas”.
Unfortunately, because of his distaste for lawyers, dynamite magnate
Alfred Bernhard Nobel (1833 – 1895)
prepared his will that established the
Prizes without legal advice or lawyers9
assistance. Consequently, it had numerous defects, including a complete lack of
details concerning the selection process,
other than the ambiguous direction that
the Prizes should go to persons who
“shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind”. Friedman cogently
argues that the archives show that from
their inception the awards have
reflected the changing priorities, arrogance, racism, hostility, sexism, inconsistencies, politics, ambitions, open and
hidden agendas, biases, rivalries, vanities, pettiness, prejudices, and narrow
( 2003 Wiley-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim
0044-8249/03/4211-1194 $ 20.00+.50/0
personal, scientific, and cultural selfinterests of committee members who
evaluate nominations. He concludes
that the process is nowhere nearly as
impartial or objective as generally
believed. He maintains that often “success or failure in winning a Prize has not
depended upon timeless, fixed standards
of excellence” but has been based more
on the “changing priorities and agendas
of committee members, as well as their
comprehension of scientific accomplishment” (p. ix).
Much of Friedman9s book explores
numerous detailed and fascinating case
studies of both successful and unsuccessful candidates, which he examines in
the context of the national and international events that influence the selection
process. On several occasions the committee denied recognition of true brilliance while rewarding mediocrity. Only
rarely did the invited nominators provide a clear consensus for a single
candidate, and on those few occasions
when such a candidate did appear, the
committee selected somebody else
closer to its scientific taste. In any
given year the respective five-member
committees for physics and chemistry
normally had several candidates who
were deemed worthy of a Prize, and
inevitably, even when trying to rise
above local parochial interests, they
had to rely on their own evaluation as
to how the Prize should be allocated.
The committees only evaluate and
make a recommendation; the full membership of the Royal Swedish Academy
of Sciences makes the final selection.
Although the committees9 recommendations were normally respected, the
Academy on occasion decided otherwise and even awarded Prizes to persons
who had been evaluated as not worthy.
Friedman shows how the changing
composition of the committees proved
critical for setting the agendas. For
example, the physics committee was
dominated from the start by members
largely sharing a strong experimentalist
bias, which disfavored mathematical and
theoretical work in awarding the early
Physics Prizes. Typically, Albert Abraham Michelson was awarded the 1907
Physics Prize “for his optical precision
instruments and the spectroscopic and
metrological investigations carried out
with their aid” largely because measureAngew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2003, 42, No. 11
ment was a specialty of a committee
member. Michelson9s more important
attempt to measure the earth9s movements relative to the ether was ignored.
In another case Albert Einstein,
“the man who became the greatest
scientific celebrity since Newton” following the confirmation of his general
relativity theory through data collected
during the 1919 eclipse of the sun, had
been nominated repeatedly for more
than a decade before finally receiving
the Prize in Physics in 1922 for his work
on the photoelectric effect, rather than
his general and special theories of relativity, which conservative committee
members considered too metaphysical
and radical.
The chemistry committee had a
particularly difficult time. By 1908 its
members understood that few if any
candidates stood head and shoulders
above others. In some years the number
of candidates almost equaled the
number of nominations. The committee9s frequent struggles to agree on a
candidate were compounded by the fact
that the most prestigious and most
internationally oriented Swedish chemist, Svante Arrhenius (the 1903 chemistry laureate), often intervened to influence the outcome. Because of a strong
personal animosity, he used his influential position for a decade and a half to
block the Chemistry Prize for Walther
Nernst, who was nominated 58 times
from 1906 to 1921, when he finally
received the Prize. Friedman shows
that in order to be considered for a
Prize a candidate needed an advocate
on the committee, and in most years few
factors other than luck and committee
preference distinguished winners from
If at times the chemistry committee
seemed adrift as its elderly members
found it difficult to follow all the advances in an ever-growing myriad of subdisciplines, by the late 1920s the committee received clear direction, as its
agenda was frequently set by two powerful new members, Theodor Svedberg
and Hans von Euler-Chelpin. Both of
them had received Nobel Prizes,
although both decisions had been occasions for much dispute, and both worked
to pull the boundary of chemistry with
respect to the Prize much deeper into
the sphere of biomedical research. In
Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2003, 42, 1194 – 1197
contrast, another new committee Prize and then received a grant of a
member, Ludwig Ramberg, tried to million US dollars from the Rockefeller
dampen the biochemical drift of the Foundation, whereupon he urged the
Prize decisions. Ramberg often stood Foundation to support a similar grant to
alone in advocating nominees who con- Siegbahn.
The Jewish Austrian physicist Lise
tributed to basic theoretical understanding of chemical principles; the others Meitner, who played a prominent role in
either did not understand or refused to the nuclear fission of uranium and was
acknowledge the need for advanced the intellectual leader of the team that
included the German chemists Otto
physical theory in chemistry.
For example, Gilbert Newton Lewis, Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, was nomifor many years head of the College of nated for the Chemistry Prize over a
Chemistry at the University of Califor- period of eight years. Nazi racial policies
nia, Berkeley and one of the 20th drove her from Germany to Sweden,
century9s greatest theoretical chemists, where she worked in the laboratory of
was nominated for the Prize numerous Siegbahn, who disliked her and was
times in at least eleven different years jealous of her superior talents. For
between 1922 and 1935. Yet he failed to political reasons Hahn was unable to
receive the Prize because his pioneering acknowledge their continuing collabotheoretical work was not considered a ration, and, in a tragic miscarriage of
valid area of chemistry, while less bril- justice, Hahn alone received the 1944
liant chemists did so with only a single Chemistry Prize (in 1945). The physinomination in a single year. Similarly, cists also ignored the nominations of
the Swiss-born Norwegian, Victor Meitner as a candidate and declared
Moritz Goldschmidt, the founder of that fission was a chemical discovery
modern geochemistry, who discovered having little to do with physics.
Friedman concludes that “the midthe laws determining the distribution of
the chemical elements not only on earth 1940s Nobel Prizes were not awarded on
but also in the universe, failed to receive the basis of recognizing merit; instead,
the Prize on the grounds that his work they had become to a great extent
was in a “hybrid specialty”. Yet, at the instruments in the politics of science”.
same time, a committee majority He does not limit his studies of the
favored contributions to the hybrid in Prizes to the first half-century, the
period for which the
which its members
official Nobel archives
are accessible. Using
namely biochemistry.
Friedman provides evi- “... the mid-1940s Noother documentation,
dence to show that the bel Prizes were not
he provides evidence
committee was “far awarded on the basis
that as the selection
of recognizing merit;
impartial, or omnisrefined, it has become
cient” and that “to say instead, they had bethat the Chemistry come to a great extent more complicated. It
never quite achieves
awarded instruments in the
the objectivity and conbetween the wars rep- politics of science.”
sensus that the public
resented a distinct class
assumes to exist and
of excellence is mishas remained “a highly
Among other themes Friedman also subjective and personal Epolitics of
demonstrates the Prize9s role in the excellence9 ”, a phrase that gave the
emerging international era of “big sci- book its title.
Friedman addresses numerous other
ence” by considering the cases of two
candidates, one of whom received the themes, such as the issue of Swedish
Prize and one who did not. Committee political neutrality, the Nobel Prize and
member Manne Siegbahn lobbied for its ceremony as elements in Swedish
Ernest O. Lawrence, whose cyclotron national cultural politics, and the changhad been used to create numerous ing reasons why media and scientists
isotopes but no specific breakthrough. alike have chosen to make a cult of the
Lawrence was awarded the 1939 Physics Prize. He notes that the Prize has long
( 2003 Wiley-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim
0044-8249/03/4211-1195 $ 20.00+.50/0
been considered an impartial Olympics
of science and culture. However, today
the Olympics themselves have been
tainted. The alleged dictum of Vince
Lombardi, the Green Bay Packers
coach, that “winning isn9t only the
most important thing, it9s the only
thing”, reigns supreme and unquestioned, and nations work themselves
into a frenzy over athletic competitions.
Apparently, this attitude is spilling over
into scientific awards, including the
“crème de la crème”, the Nobel Prize.
Friedman is also concerned that, at a
time when science has increasingly
become a collaborative, cumulative
enterprise involving large research
teams, the highly publicized focus on a
pantheon of individuals may present a
distorted picture of science. He concludes with reflections on what the role
of the Nobel Prizes should be in honoring the contributions of scientists in the
21st century.
The book is divided into five parts
and 14 chapters. Most titles are quotations from committee members or other
individuals involved with the Prizes. The
clever or amusing chapter subtitles are
unusual in a scholarly volume. The book
includes three appendices: “Winners of
the Nobel Prize in Physics and Chemistry, 1901 – 2000”, “Committee Members, 1900 – 1951”, and “Money Matters”. There are no reference numbers in
the text, but complete documentation is
given in 72 pages of notes. A detailed
index makes the volume user-friendly.
The errors are few and comparatively
minor considering the book9s length and
detail. Most of these involve proper
Friedman9s book cogently demonstrates that “excellence is not an unambiguous concept, even in science” (p. ix).
Although he is often critical, his book is
not an attack on science or the Royal
Swedish Academy of Sciences. Instead,
he asks the reader “to reflect upon the
meaning of such Prizes in a culture
characterized by intense competition for
resources, indecorous commercialism,
and hype. As a new century dawns, and
the scientific community adjusts to a
post-cold-war era, how should we
rethink and reclaim Alfred Nobel9s
legacy?” (p. x).
I heartily recommend this excellent
survey of the 20th century9s most presti-
gious science prizes, not only to scholars
in chemistry, physics, scientific institutions, and the history of science, but also
to the general reader interested in
science and scientists.
George B. Kauffman
California State University
Fresno, CA (USA)
Robert Burns Woodward
Architect and Artist
in the World of
Molecules. Edited
by Otto T. Benfey
and Peter J. T
Morris. Chemical
Heritage Foundation, Philadelphia
2001. 470 pp.,
$ 31.50.—ISBN
Science has always attracted an eclectic
blend of individuals who sometimes
devote their entire lives to their chosen
discipline, often with such passion and
commitment that their inevitable discoveries become profoundly worldshaping. In rare cases, these scientists
manage to become legends in their own
time because of their towering intellects,
mesmerizing personalities, and farreaching contributions. Such was the
personality and impact of Robert
Burns Woodward, the subject of this
fascinating book.
Within the generously proportioned
pages of this book, appropriate for its
larger-than-life subject, the reader will
find beautifully written chapters about
the man, a collection of his most influential papers, and a rare gem—Woodward9s A. C. Cope Award lecture, never
before seen in print. Edited by Otto T.
Benfey and Peter J. T. Morris, who set
the stage for the entire text through
their preface, commentaries, and
insightful notes, the book begins with a
thoughtful and eloquent chapter by
Crystal Woodward, Woodward9s daughter, in which she attempts to explain
Woodward9s artistry as he demonstrated
it so convincingly throughout his career.
An accomplished artist herself, she succeeds admirably, providing an intriguing
analysis of her father9s inner artistic self
and his expressions of art through his
colorful drawings, creative designs, and
linguistic descriptions. Three equally
fascinating chapters by Peter J. T.
Morris and Mary Ellen Bowden (A
Biographical Introduction), Robert C.
Putnam (Reminiscences from Junior
High School), and Frank H. Westheimer
(Scientist, Colleague, Friend) follow in
Part I, continuing the captivating saga of
this charismatic figure.
A most intriguing chapter then follows, in part II, by Woodward9s collaborator on the vitamin B12 project, Albert
Eschenmoser, who writes about this
extraordinary venture in total synthesis.
This contribution is a real treat, for
within its paragraphs one can glean
insights into this thrilling adventure of
trans-Atlantic proportions, as well as the
inner thoughts of some of the players.
Eschenmoser, another giant of the field
of synthesis, unveils the story beautifully
and in his characteristic deep and
thought-provoking style.
In part III, the reader will find a
collection of Woodward9s original
papers covering the topics of the Woodward Rules (UV rules), quinine, cholesterol and cortisone, ferrocene, strychnine, reserpine, the octant rule (optical
rotatory dispersion rules), chlorophyll,
cephalosporin C, vitamin B12, and the
Woodward – Hoffmann Rules, set in
proper perspective with an appropriate
introduction by P. J. T. Morris.
Then comes what is perhaps the
most revealing and thrilling of all parts
of the book, part IV, where Woodward9s
Cope lecture is printed for the first time
with an accompanying introduction and
notes by O. T. Benfey. For someone like
me, who has never listened to Woodward in person, this is compelling reading from which one emerges full of
intrigue and awe. Here, Woodward
talks about himself, his students, and
his science in a biographical style, all the
way from his childhood, to the Woodward–Hoffmann rules, and to 1973, the
time of his Cope Award Address in
Chicago. You will be enchanted, as I
was, by his genius, his science, his
theater, and his mastery of the English
language which breathes an unparalAngew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2003, 42, 1194 – 1197
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