Thursday, December 10, 2020

The Changing Face of the Nobel Prize

By Vanessa McCaffrey

In college, I told everyone that my goal in life was to win the Nobel Prize in Physics. Particle Physics, in fact. Which was odd, because I was a chemistry major and had only taken the introductory physics required for my major. But no mind, winning the Nobel Prize was the ultimate goal in science and its glamour and prestige had captured my imagination. As I continued along in my education—earning my BS in chemistry, a PhD in physical organic and polymer chemistry, and now teaching at a Liberal Arts College—it became clear that my talents would not land me on the stage in Stockholm on any December 10th, but the allure of the Nobel Prize is still there. I teach a class on the Nobel Prize in the Sciences and help initiate a new generation of citizens into the stories, controversies, and science that make up this illustrious award.

But why does this prize attract the attention of the world? We’ve all heard the stories about why Alfred Nobel decided to endow this prize – a case of mistaken identity – but this is (by many accounts) apocryphal and the truth will probably never be known. If you want to know more about Alfred Nobel and some of the factors that might have led him to endow this prize, there are many biographies of Nobel and the one by Kenne Fant is terrific. 

Hand mit Ringen (Hand with Rings): a print of one of the first X-rays by Wilhelm Röntgen (1845–1923) of the left hand of his wife Anna Bertha Ludwig.
I think that in the first ten-years of the prize, the chosen winners were inspiring, exciting, and, in some ways, already celebrities. Take for example, the first Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery of X-rays. Wilhelm Röntgen had made this momentous discovery only six years earlier, in December 1895. This first published photo of the X-rays of his wife’s hand (wedding ring and all) excited the public and hobbyists soon started building their own devices from easily available parts. Physicians seized upon this new invention and by 1900, X-rays were already being used in medicine! This made Wilhelm Röntgen already well known in the newspapers when he was awarded the first Physics Nobel Prize in 1901.

Hendrik A. Lorentz and Pieter Zeeman were the second winners of the Prize for their contributions to the explanation and correlation of magnetism and electricity, two phenomena in heavy use by the Victorians. Lorentz in particular was extremely personable and always in the public eye. The Nobel Prize was seen as a fitting tribute to this giant of a man. And then there were the Curies – Marie and Pierre. The public loved to gossip about this power couple. The eerie glow of radium and their tragic love story combined with Marie’s later controversies, awards, and her constant fund raising for war efforts make her the one Nobel Laureate that most Americans can name.

Awarding the Nobel Prize to such people as Albert Einstein (Physics 1921), Glenn Seaborg (Chemistry 1951), and Luis Alvarez (Physics 1968) kept the Nobel Prize in the public conscious (and the large cash prize doesn’t hurt either!).

My interest in the Nobel Prize had been waning the past several years though. Prizes given for esoteric discoveries that seem to have little impact on the world (what exactly is a quasicrystal?). Prizes given to three more, six more, nine more white men. But this year was the year of the woman in Stockholm with historic prizes awarded to Dr.Emmanuelle Charpentier and Prof. Jennifer Doudna in Chemistry as well as Prof.Andrea Ghez winning the prize in Physics for measuring the mass of the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy.

This year’s prize in Physics for black holes, in many ways, reminds me of the circumstances surrounding the original Nobel Prize in 1901. Just as X-rays captured the attention of the public back then, Director Christopher Nolan reminded us of the beauty and weirdness of black holes in his 2014 movie Interstellar. US physicist Kip Thorne legitimized the use of a black hole in this movie with his contributions as a science advisor. And then just a few short years later, in 2019, we saw a photo of Katie Bouman captured right as the images from the Event Horizon Telescope Team were being rendered into that unforgettable, enigmatic orange ring. Black holes were exciting again!

So, the public was already primed for the announcement that the Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics to Roger Penrose, Reinhard Genzel, and Prof. Andrea Ghez. Ghez is an unlikely Nobel Laureate – she is female and young compared to the average science laureate. As one of only four women who have won the Nobel Prize in Physics (and two of those in the past three years!), she gives me hope that maybe, just maybe, the average face of science is starting to look more like me and more like the majority of the students in my classes these days – young, female, passionate, and strong.

This year’s winners of the Nobel Prize have me thinking about my course again. I cannot wait to share these women’s stories and their science to inspire another generation of students.

Editor’s note: For more on Andrea's inspirational work, read the message from AAS President Paula Szkody at

Vanessa McCaffrey is Professor of Chemistry and the Director of the Undergraduate Research program at Albion College in Albion, MI. She started her career as a polymer/organic chemist, but now has research programs in organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, and a collaborative project with Prof. Nicolle Zellner in astrobiology/origins of life research. She has mentored over 75 undergraduate students in the research lab and is convinced that at least one of them will go on to win a Nobel Prize someday. She lives in Okemos, MI with her husband, four cats, several fish tanks, and too many plants to count.

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