Nobel Rotters

Today marks the beginning of the Cambridge Science Festival. Events will be taking place all over Cambridge between now and 20th March.

An_Experiment_on_a_Bird_in_an_Air_Pump_by_Joseph_Wright_of_Derby,_1768

Experiment with a Bell Jar – Joseph Wright of Derby

Cambridge is a great centre of World Science – its undergraduates in various fields have won a total of 61 Nobel prizes, more than any other university (although not all of them will be for scientific subjects). It is, however, less well documented, but much attested anecdotally between scientists, that winners of Nobel prizes are often disliked and even detested by their peers. Last week, one of my students, Tatsunori, was telling us about William Bradford Shockley Jr., the leader of the team at Bell Laboratories that invented the transistor in the late 1940s, who went on to be awarded the Nobel prize (with two of his team, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain) in 1956. As Tatsunori related, Shockley subsequently found it difficult to persuade anyone to work with him, owing to his reputation for being an all-round ghastly individual. So generally disliked was he, that when he died in 1989, his children only found out by reading the morning papers.

And it seems to be a pattern. It is not, presumably, that the Nobel prize corrupts its recipients (although it probably does not help them with any narcissism issues they might have), but rather that in order to win one in the first place, not only do you have to do a bit of science, but you have to scratch and claw your way to the front of the pack.

Science is a strongly collaborative practice. Scientists will jointly write papers and conduct research; scientists work in laboratories. But the prize is awarded in the singular (or in the very low single figures). Usually it will be the head of the laboratory, or research project, who receives the prize. And naturally enough, as with most things in life, leadership of the laboratory or research institute will go, not to the best thinker, but to the most rabid self-publicist.

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