The Nobel prizes are arguably the most famous awards that celebrate intellectual achievements (with the exception of the Peace prize, which should be the MOST important and relevant one, but sadly, it is sometimes influenced by politics).
One of the categories of the Nobel prizes is physiology or medicine. It is safe to assume that most biomedical scientists have thought about winning it (yes, I have daydreamed about that too…). Almost invariably, year after year, when the winners are announced, somebody will disagree with the choices. Sometimes, the disagreement is about the awardee, sometimes is about the work itself and sometimes is about people left out, who in the opinion of some (sometimes themselves), were deserving of the award.
These controversies are part of the other categories of the Nobel prizes as well. Some even argue that the Nobel is “a lousy way to recognize important science“. I strongly disagree with this statement. Any discovery that helps save lives, for example, is unarguably important, like the discovery of antibiotics (Fleming, Chain and Florey, 1945). This is just one example; there are many others…
On the other hand, the “importance” of any given scientific work can be relative. For example, the Portugese neurologist Egaz Moniz (a Nobelist, by the way) developed cerebral angiography, a technique that is used to image the blood vessels around the brain. This technique is still used, with some modifications, as an essential tool for neurosurgeons. Moreover, variations of this technique are used to obtain pictures of the heart’s blood vessels, helping save lives by discovering blocked coronary arteries for example.
Do you think that Dr. Moniz deserved the Nobel for this work? Well, he did not get the Nobel for the development of angiography.
And here comes the interesting part:
He did get the prize in 1949 for “His discovery of the therapeutic value of leucotomy in certain psychoses” (Moniz shared the prized with Walter Hess, who worked in another neurology-related topic). If you do not recognize the word leucotomy, try its synonym, lobotomy. Lobotomy involves inserting a long metal rod (like an ice pick; sometimes an actual ice pick was used), up the nose and essentially destroy nerve fibers related to the prefrontal cortex of the brain. This procedure is no longer used in clinical practice, for obvious reasons.
The point is that sometimes it is very difficult to predict the actual or eventual importance of any scientific work. There are many other criticisms to the Nobels (some misguided, some more reasonable) aimed at the selection procedure, for example, but we can talk about them some other time.
One thing is for sure. Nobelists are the most celebrated and famous modern scientists.
In 2000, Dr. Eric Kandel of Columbia University shared the Physiology or Medicine Nobel Prize for his discoveries on the biological basis for memory. He worked on an invertebrate, the sea slug Aplysia, which illustrates the importance of animal models in biology. In 2007, he wrote a delightful book: In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind. This book is part autobiography, part history of science, part science exploration, overall, a great read!
In 2008, I attended the Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting, held in Washington, DC. One of the highlights of these meetings is the exhibits, where companies show new equipment, computer software, new products, and most importantly, books! Among other things, I am a proud, unapologetic bookworm, so in these meetings I spend a significant time looking at book exhibits to see what’s new.
On November 16, 2008 I was scanning the publisher’s row, when I saw a sign saying that Dr. Kandel would be at a specific booth for book signing! The time for the signing was about two hours away. You see, I have never, ever done anything like this, I debated whether to wait for the signing or keep looking around and maybe come back later, but I figured, when would I have another opportunity like this? I bought the book on the spot and waited. I was the first in line! When Dr. Kandel arrived, he was smiling, greeting people left and right, and he was clearly enjoying the attention. (Did I mention that I was first in line? …(:-D)…).
When I gave him the book to sign I shook his hand and said “Dr. Kandel, it is an honor meeting you“. Do you know what he responded?
“Oh, but the honor is mine!“
He said, with a big smile in his face, and he signed my book.
Of course, it was not his honor, he WAS the Nobelist, but he was wonderfully, thoughtfully nice enough to make a younger, way less accomplished scientist feel important.
One of the main points of his book is how memories are made when a person experiences what is perceived as a significant event. I am sure that Dr. Kandel does not remember our meeting; I am also sure that I will never forget it.
If you want to know more
http://www.nobelprize.org (The Nobel Prize website)
Dr. Eric Kandel (2007) In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind. Norton.
Dr. Kandel, Dr. Baldscientist and the book