I’ve felt for sometime now that perhaps we should retire the Nobel Prize. The money could be used to fund grants, set up an institute for peace and science, or even have a Nobel conference like TED. The prize puts too much emphasis on individual achievement and in many instances misplaced emphasis. The old view of science involving the lone explorer seeking truth in the wilderness needs to be updated to a new metaphor of the sandpile, as used to described self-organized criticality by Per Bak, Chao Tang, and Kurt Wiesenfeld. In the sandpile model, individual grains of sand are dropped on the pile and every once in awhile there are “avalanches” where a bunch of grains cascade down. The distribution of avalanche sizes is a power law. Hence, there is no scale to avalanches and there is no grain that is more special than any other.
This is just like science. The contributions of scientists and nonscientists are like grains of sand dropping on the sandpile of knowledge and every once in awhile a big scientific avalanche is triggered. The answer to the question of who triggered the avalanche is that everyone contributed to it. The Nobel Prize rewards a few of the grains of sand that happened to be proximally located to some specific avalanche (and sometimes not) but the rewarded work always depended on something else.
Even if you think this “everyone contributes” idea a little too postmodern for your taste there can be no arguing that the awarding of the prize can be quite arbitrary. There have always been glaring omissions like Jocelyn Bell Burnell not receiving the prize even though she was the one who discovered pulsars and Freeman Dyson, who’s contribution to developing renormalization theory for QED was certainly deserving of one. If anyone deserved the peace prize, it probably would be Ghandi, who famously didn’t get one. The fact that there are always debates about who is deserving and who was snubbed just demonstrates the arbitrariness of it all.
It is also not clear what benefit the Nobel Prize brings to the world. Certainly a handful of lucky people get very well rewarded by receiving one but in many cases they were already doing quite well without the prize. Maybe the Nobel Prize should be reserved for people not doing well – like Douglas Prasher, the shuttle bus driver who was instrumental in discovering the gene for green flourescent protein that resulted in last year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry. I think Nobel would rather have the money spent actually trying to bring peace to the world rather than giving it to head’s of state that should be doing it as part of their job anyway.