Nobel secrets revealed (some of them, anyway)

Now that all three 2010 Nobel Prizes in the natural sciences have been awarded, speculation can turn to the bigger question: What does it really take to win a Nobel?

History attests to many Prize-worthy candidates who have been passed over and others who have passed away (a Nobel is no longer given posthumously).

Swedish virologist Erling Norrby has the ultimate inside scoop, which he explores in a new book. And he reports that luck can play as much of a role at the highest levels of Nobel decision-making as it does in the prize-worthy discoveries themselves.

For most of 20 years, Norrby served on the committee for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine at the Karolinska Institute. Then he moved on to supervise the work of the Nobel prizes in Physics and Chemistry at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Most of Norrby’s book draws on the earliest Nobel archives, dating back to the first awards in 1901. Norrby was able to explore the preliminary notes for weaker candidates, reviews for stronger candidates and exhaustive analyses for the strongest candidates; the shortlist of finalists and comments on their Prize-worthiness; and the final proposal for the top recommended recipient. Unfortunately, a 50-year secrecy rule puts materials newer than 1959 off limits. Since it takes five to 20 years or more from the first nomination of a candidate to the final selection and vote, most candidates have their scientific accomplishments reconsidered over and over again.

Stories of serendipity

When it comes time for the final prize-winning vote, it helps to have an influential fan with a persuasive personality on your side. That tipped the scale in 1954 for John Enders, Thomas Weller and Frederick Robbins for their discovery (in Enders’ underfunded lab at Children’s Hospital Boston) that polio viruses could grow in cells of non-neural origin, contrary to the prevailing evidence and beliefs of the time.

“Because of their momentous discovery, it became possible to develop effective vaccines and eliminate one of the major epidemic scourges of the first half of the 20th century in industrialized countries,” Norrby writes.

But initially, the Nobel committee majority recommended Vincent du Vigneaud for his discovery of the structure of vasopressin and oxytocin. A passionate committee member, who co-authored an uncommon dissenting recommendation, swayed the final vote to Enders, Weller and Robbins for “the most important [discovery] in the whole history of virology.” The same committee member (Swedish virologist Sven Gard) later summed up Jonas Salk’s contributions to the polio vaccine as “in principal nothing new” and therefore not prize-worthy.

(As for du Vigneaud, he became a Nobel Laureate the next year. He began as the number two pick in Chemistry, but his luck turned when the top choice was commandeered by the Academy for the Nobel in Physiology or Medicine.)

Third time’s a charm

The critical requirements of Alfred Nobel’s will were “discovery” and “benefit to mankind.” Yet the notion of discovery remains under continuous discussion, Norrby writes.

What constitutes a clearly defined discovery? Enders and his colleagues paved the way for development of successful vaccines against polio, but interestingly they did not invent any new tissue-culture technique. Rather, they chose an amenable strain of poliovirus for study, in contrast to other researchers who had failed with other strains. They let their cultures grow longer. Yet by the measured pace of the Nobel committees, the Enders-Weller-Robbins nominations sprinted through review (Enders was first nominated in 1952).

Compare the polio story with the worldwide eradication of smallpox, which the World Health Organization (WHO) announced in 1978. The fundamental vaccination procedure dated back to country doctor Edward Jenner’s observation of the smooth complexions of milkmaids in Gloucestershire, England, in the 18th century. He deduced that an infection with cowpox, common in milkmaids, might protect against smallpox. A concerted global vaccination effort, also led by the WHO in the last half-century, led to polio’s virtual eradication. But Jenner is long gone, and the Nobel is not given to organizations.

“The success of smallpox eradication was due more to organizational skills than to a recent single scientific discovery,” Norrby writes. “The successful outcome of the eradication campaign is indeed a triumph for global international collaboration. Could this kind of contribution be recognized by a Peace Prize?”

Reclaiming serendipity

Norrby earnestly tries to reclaim the word “serendipity” to describe how the creative scientific process requires a prepared and curious mind that’s ready and willing to recognize and nurture the seeds of discovery and happy accidents of luck, as articulated by U.S. scientist Joseph Henry and later and more famously by French scientist Louis Pasteur.

Conceptually, serendipity can explain a lot in science. “Who would have thought,” Norrby writes as an example, “that the ritual cannibalism practiced by the Fore people in New Guinea during and before the 1950s was the mechanism of transmission of a highly atypical infectious agent, eventually called ‘prion,’ to individuals who at a much later date developed the lethal neurological disease kuru.” Someone did make the connection—Carleton Gajdusek, who trained with Enders at Children’s and shared a Nobel in Physiology or Medicine in 1976.

Serendipity abounds in the candid stories of discovery—not the press release—that are the most interesting and telling.  “A non-scientist not only believes that the scientific process is rational; he also believes that a typical scientific article gives a proper presentation of the problem and an accurate picture of the sequence of events underlying a particular discovery,” Norrby writes. “Nothing can be further from the truth.”

Nobel laureate George Beadle (Physiology or Medicine, ’58) corroborates this view: “I have often thought how much more interesting science would be if those who created it told how it really happened, rather than reporting it logically and impersonally, as they so often do in scientific papers.”

A similar take from Richard Feynman (Physics, ’65): “We have a habit in writing articles published in scientific journals to make the work as finished as possible, to cover up all the tracks, to not worry about the blind alleys or to describe how you had the wrong idea first, and so on.”

So you didn’t win this year?

The deadline for next year’s Nobel nominations is January 31. Only designated individuals can make nominations, but the committees send invitations to nominate to prestigious institutions, such as Harvard Medical School, where the dean would then distribute them, Norrby said in a talk he gave in July in Boston.

And if you never win, take heart. “Most scientists are not granted the privilege and luck to make paradigmatic observations,” Norrby writes. “Still they may contribute as a part of a larger enterprise to the accumulation of critical information to be molded into comprehensive knowledge. There are many blind alleys and challenges of hypotheses that turn out to be flawed. The only way to manage the days of toil, setbacks and disappointments is to stay with the problem, to show perseverance.”

Hang in there.