Thursday, October 7, 2010

The new aristocracy

Sorry I was AWL for a while there (Away With Leave - it is my blog after all and I don't need leave to leave. Zing!). It was a busy week for me, but things are settling down for now.

Yes folks, it is that time of the year again. A bunch of dignified, boring looking people in black robes will huddle up in an elegant closed room and debate...wait, that's the supreme court. Sorry let me try again. A bunch of dignified, boring looking people will huddle up in an elegant closed room in Sweden (motto: not Norway) to decide the winners of the Nobel prize.

Alfred "dynamite" Nobel bequeathed an enormous sum of money to reward hard-working scientists after he felt enormous remorse at having invented dynamite. So every year the committee sits down and awards prizes in five categories: Physiology or Medicine, Physics, Chemistry, Literature, and Peace. The Nobel prize in economics is a very slight misnomer because it was never specified in Nobel's original will, but was established later by another Swedish dude in memory of Alfred Nobel.

Being a nerd entitles me to obsess over the history and peculiarities of the Nobel prize, and I have proudly done so over the years. Let me share a few today.

  • Like Herbert Hoover's reputation, the Nobel pot has appreciated in value. It is worth some $1.5 million today. Or, roughly what Charlie Sheen makes per episode of Two and a Half Men.
  • Unlike the Oscars (see: Ledger, Heath), the Nobel is never awarded posthumously. As my friend (and roommate) JPA recently said, "Two rules to win a Nobel: Say something controversial and Don't die."
  • The prize cannot be split between more than three people, but the rules of splitting are weird. Some times, one person gets half of the prize money while other two get a quarter of it. A little insulting.

For some (not us), the Nobel is a family affair.

  • William Bragg and Lawrence Bragg are the only father-son duo to share a Nobel Prize. They won in 1915 for their work on X-Ray crystallography. Only 25 at the time, L. Bragg is also the youngest to win the prize. 
  • Niels Bohr, that colossus of early 20th century physics won the prize in 1922. His son Aage matched the old man by winning it in 1975 for his work on refining the model of the nucleus.
  • Arthur Kornberg won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1959 for discovering DNA Polymerase I. His son Roger won the Chemistry one in 2006 for solving the crystal structure of RNA Polymerase.
All of that pales in comparison to the mercurial Curie family. This superfamily produced three Nobels in all:
  • Marie Curie shared the Physics Nobel in 1903 with her husband Pierre for their work on radiation. She won the 1911 prize in Chemistry for discovering Radium and Polonium. 
  • Pierre and Marie must have done a great job raising their kids because their daughter Irene shared the Nobel in Chemistry with her husband Frederic in 1935 for their work on artificial radioactivity.
ABC take note: this is the real No Ordinary Family.

Winning one Nobel is hard. Winning two is near impossible. And yet there have been several two-peats:

  • Linus Pauling: Pauling virtually created modern chemistry by working on a quantum mechanical model of molecular bond formation and was rightfully awarded the Chemistry prize in 1954. His Peace Nobel (for his work on nuclear nonproliferation) was a bit dubious, in my opinion. Then again, Peace prizes have always been marred by bizarre political overtones. (see: Kissinger, Henry for bringing "lasting peace in Vietnam" and Obama, Barack)
  • As noted above, Marie Curie won it twice.
  • Frederick Sanger: Sanger is the Kobe Bryant of Chemistry. He won it twice, in 1958 and 1980, for his work on protein synthesis and DNA sequencing, respectively.
  • John Bardeen: The Jimmy Neutron, if you will. Bardeen won the Physics prize twice: Transistors (1956), and Superconductivity (1972). Thank him for your ipods and 5 TB harddrives and iFancyMacs.

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