Two teams of scientists simultaneously announce the discovery of a lifetime—a breakthrough that profoundly alters our view of the universe. A Nobel Prize is surely not far away. Yet the statutes of the Nobel Foundation state that the honor may not be “divided into more than three prizes at most.” A committee in Sweden now faces a knotty choice: Who among the teams' many worthy scientists deserves to win the world's most prestigious medal?
This scenario could easily apply to the search for the Higgs boson, which appears to have reached its climax [see “The Higgs at Last?” by Guido Tonelli, Sau Lan Wu and Michael Riordan, on page 66]. But it could also describe last year's Nobel Prize in Physics, for which three researchers representing two teams totaling 51 scientists were recognized for uncovering the accelerating expansion of the universe. These three winners were deserving. Yet they did not work alone. Many other researchers made equally important contributions but will not have the special asterisk reserved for Nobel laureates next to their name.
Snubs are not new to the Nobel, of course. Physicists Nicola Cabibbo, Makoto Kobayashi and Toshihide Maskawa helped to predict a new family of quarks; today scientists use the “CKM matrix” to do calculations. Yet half the 2008 physics prize was split only between Kobayashi and Maskawa. That year's chemistry prize recognized three researchers for green fluorescent protein (GFP), now widely used as a cellular tagging tool. Not included was Douglas Prasher, the man who first cloned the GFP gene. After publishing his work in 1992, Prasher freely shared his insight with two of the eventual winners before his grant ran out. At the time of the award, he was driving a courtesy shuttle for an auto dealer.
The Nobel committees force a category error: they insist on awarding the prize to a few individuals, while in reality, the nature of the scientific enterprise has changed. Teams now perform the bulk of the highest-impact work. Whereas a century ago a patent clerk famously divined the theory of relativity in his spare time, discovering a Higgs boson requires decades of planning and the efforts of 6,000 researchers. No one person—no troika, even—can legitimately claim all the credit. The scientific papers that document the Higgs discovery are signed “The Atlas Collaboration” or “The CMS Collaboration,” with members listed alphabetically in appendixes that run more than 15 single-spaced pages.
As we see it, the Nobel Foundation has two ways forward. The first is to keep the three-honoree maximum in place, but to award organizations as well as individuals. The Nobel Peace Prize has long favored this approach. The committees that choose the science prizes have never recognized an organization, but nothing in the statutes of the Nobel Foundation prohibits it. Certainly an award split between the ATLAS and CMS collaborations would make a worthy first.
Alternatively—or perhaps in addition—the Nobel Foundation should amend its statutes to allow the award to go to more than three individuals. This adjustment could help solve the dilemma surrounding the award for the theoretical work that led to the Higgs. Six researchers developed the Higgs mechanism in 1964; five are still alive today and thus eligible for Nobel's honor.
In many ways, the Nobel Prize is a charming anachronism. Recipients fly to Stockholm and meet with the Swedish royal family in white-tie tuxedos. Other scientific prizes now offer larger cash prizes. Yet the Nobel continues to capture the world's imagination—and that of the scientific community—with a 111-year pedigree of offering exemplars of extraordinary lives spent in pursuit of truth and discovery. In the years since the prize was first awarded, the nature of that pursuit has profoundly changed. It is time that the Nobel did as well.