Nobel prize prediction season kicks off

Nobel prize medal for chemistry
Nobel prize medal for chemistry

As the weather turns crisp, some minds turn toward Sweden and the Nobel prizes. It’s true that only an exclusive coterie can realistically consider themselves contenders for the world’s most prestigious scientific prizes, to be announced early next month. But with the brainpower concentrated in the Boston area, the number of people who wouldn’t be totally surprised by an early morning phone call from Stockholm is probably larger than in most cities.

And with Nobel season comes Nobel prediction season, a pseudoscientific free-for-all in which people use all kinds of methods to fuel their speculations about who will win. The tools deployed range from analysis of how potentially prize-worthy research has been cited in other scientists’ papers, to scanning who’s already won coveted but less-illustrious prizes with nicknames such as “America’s Nobel” and “Canada’s Nobel.” There are even online markets that sort of resemble fantasy sports leagues, in which possible future laureates’ stock rises and falls based on how likely people think they are to win.

Some Boston-area scientists have been regularly floated as Nobel contenders. After a method of regulating gene activity clinched the medicine prize in 2006, people speculated it might be only a matter of time before other local scientists are honored. Those scientists—Victor Ambros, a biologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and Gary Ruvkun, a biologist at Massachusetts General Hospital—are usually on short-lists for the medicine prize. Lisa Randall, a superstar Harvard University physicist who also finds time to write science books for the general public, has been mentioned as a possible contender.

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As an observer of science, I’ve always liked the prizes, if for no other reason that they honor basic scientific discoveries and catapult profound ideas into the spotlight. Suddenly, the intricate workings of a cell or the structure of the universe becomes front page news—the importance and relevance to a general audience suddenly unassailable because of the honor bestowed by the award.

But the pre-Nobel rumor mill has always seemed a little silly. Who can say if, or when, these people will win? Their accomplishments and the recognition they’ve garnered are already considerable. Their world-changing work is often so far in the past that it can seem more like a lifetime achievement award than a recognition of ideas and research that is shaping the future. And what to make of a new breed of prizes, offered by young billionaires, that offer a much bigger check? Do splashy new prizes perhaps threaten to undermine the reverential sway that the Nobels hold over our us?

In any case, the predictions for this year’s prizes are rolling in, with Thomson Reuters, a media and information company based in New York, pegging a team that includes one local contender—economist Joshua Angrist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He, along with two other economists, are predicted as possible economics prize winners “for their advancement of empirical microeconomics.” Angrist’s work focuses on understanding the connection between education policy and school reform and how students actually do.

Other picks include physicists Peter Higgs and Francois Englert, who predicted the existence of the particle of the summer, the Higgs boson and Dennis J. Slamon, who discovered a cancer-causing gene in breast cancer for which there is now an effective, targeted treatment. The full list is here.

For perspective on what getting a Nobel is like from a person who actually receives the phone call, I got in touch with Craig Mello, a UMass Medical School biologist who shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Stanford University biologist Andrew Fire, about his experience. Mello answered questions by e-mail.

Q: What did you do the night before?

A: I was exhausted the night before, having had a hard day sailing (and capsizing) my hobie cat on Narragansett Bay (in remnants of a tropical storm). I had no expectation whatsoever of getting the call. ... The only thing I did differently is turn the ringer on, on the bedside phone. It’s normally off when all the family is home. When the phone call came at 4 a.m., I was checking my daughter’s blood sugar and giving insulin, so I was out of the room. When I walked back in, the phone was ringing again, and my wife who had just hung up on the first call said, “Don’t pick it up, its a crank call.” I told her, not believing it myself, that “they are announcing the Nobel Prize tonight. ... So I had better pick it up just in case.” You should have seen the look on her face when I said that.

Q: In general, do people who are at the top tier know when the Nobels are due to be announced and that they are contenders?

A: Yes, you know you are on the long list, because the folks who nominate for the Nobel also nominate for smaller prizes, which tend to be precursors. Andy [Fire] and I had a few of those so we knew we were on the radar.

Q: How does life change afterwards (if at all)?

A: Its a lot of fun, but life doesn’t change too much. You would hope folks in Washington would listen to you, but so far my voice and those of many other scientists who have tried to reach out to Congress seem to go totally unheard. There is a major revolution in genomics right now. ... Unfortunately, by cutting funding right now to the NIH, Congress is preventing US scientists from fully taking advantage of this and other revolutionary new tools. Sadly, because of cuts in funding, new therapies based on genomics (as well as valuable intellectual property) will not be developed in the US, or will be developed more slowly. China, for example, is really starting to “eat our lunch.”

Finally, on a lighter note relating to your question, I think trash day was Tuesday (the next day) and as I was dragging the cans out to the roadside my neighbor from across the street who was doing the same, said, “Some things never change.”