The Prizewinners

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In 1977 the sociologist Harriet Zuckerman published a comprehensive study of the American Nobel laureates in science called Scientific Elite . She used these words of Simone Weil for an epigraph: “Science today must search for a source of inspiration above itself or it will perish. There are just three reasons for doing science: (1) technical applications; (2) chess game; (3) the way toward God. (The chess game is embellished with competitions, prizes and medals.)”

Of all the prizes awarded to the players of the game of science, the Nobel is the most prestigious. Since the Second World War, Americans have won more of them than any other country—we have fifty-four laureates in the category of physiology or medicine. The Germans won most before the war, and their decline may be attributed to Adolf Hitler himself.

In 1936 the Nobel Peace Prize was given to Carl von Ossietzky, whom the Nazis had thrown into prison three years before. Hitler’s petulant response was to declare that henceforth no German would be permitted to accept a Nobel. The scientific community took the hint, and the first wave of émigrés to America included eight men who had already won the prize, Einstein, Fermi, and Bohr among them. They were followed by three who would win it soon: the physicists Pauli and Stern and the biochemist Henrik Dam. Bohr, Pauli, and Dam returned to Europe after the war, the others remained here. There were two “waves,” as a scientist at Rockefeller University put it: “First they came fleeing from the Nazis, and then, about twenty years later, they were fleeing from the Russians.” Most of those who came were mathematicians and physicists, but their contributions to the accelerated physics of the space program necessarily spilled over into biology and medicine.

When scientists are confronted with the question “Why have the Americans so dominated the awards?” their first response is usually a qualifying smile. They speak of the immigration already mentioned, of the number of laureates who were born somewhere else. Then the obvious truth is brought forward: “We have more money and more people doing science.” There is a degree of sophisticated reservation about what real bearing the glamorous prize can have on intellectual work of the highest order. The justice of the awards is rarely questioned, but examples are given of people who should have won and did not. Oswald T. Avery is a classic case: Avery did his work on DNA—the genetic code—when he was quite old, and he died before Stockholm got around to him. Timing is everything. (According to Nobel’s will, “The prizes for physics and chemistry shall be awarded by the Swedish Academy of Sciences; that for physiological or medical works by the Caroline Institute in Stockholm …”) The institute’s explanation is instructive: “Avery’s discovery in 1944 of DNA as carrier of heredity represents one of the most important achievements in genetics and it is to be regretted that he did not receive the Nobel Prize. By the time the dissident voices were silenced, he had passed away.”

ANOTHER RESERVATION goes to the heart of science itself. The great breakthrough is rarely now the accomplishment of a single man or woman working in isolation. A field—biology, for example—advances the world over; shared knowledge increases until some sort of critical point is reached, the point at which the great discovery is not only possible but virtually inevitable. At the moment that point arrived in biology, America was there with the best technology and the maximum resources. As one scientist put it, “The surf was up and we had the biggest board.” Another metaphor was given by the physicist John Ziman. He compared Crick and Watson, who won the Nobel in 1962 for their work on the structure of DNA, to sergeants who, “after a mighty assault, finally planted the flag upon the summit of the citadel. By the time they ventured into battle, victory was certain; it was largely chance that put the symbol of it into their hands.”

The rare and more dramatic instance of a discovery that directly defied the accepted opinion is exemplified by Gerald M. Edelman, who won the prize in 1972 for his discovery of the molecular structure of antibodies, which rationalized the study of immunology. His ideas were, at first, simply not believed, a not altogether unfortunate circumstance. If they had been, he has stated, “they could have been snapped up by laboratories with much more expert people than myself, and I think it [the structure] would have become clearer much earlier, had they paid attention. But they didn’t, and so I had a chance in a leisurely way to explore this whole business.”

Unable to publish his early findings in the appropriate journals, Edelman sent a one-page letter to the Journal of the American Chemical Society :

Sir: Reaction of gamma-globulin with sulfhydryl compounds, sulfite, or performic acid resulted in a marked diminution in the sedimentation coefficient and molecular weight.… These findings suggest that human gamma-globulin contains subunits linked at least in part by disulfide bonds. The possibility that linkages other than disulfide bonds are involved has not been excluded.