And the winner is… Science

2017-12-06

A column by Massimiano Bucchi, Professor of Science and Technology in Society, about how The Nobel Prize contributed to define the way we think about the scientists. His book Geniuses, Heroes and Saints: The Nobel Prize and the Public Image of Science has just been published in Italian, with other international editions forthcoming.

In 1996, a committee of British experts rejected the application for funding submitted by Prof. Harold Kroto for his research. Two hours later, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences issued its own verdict, awarding the Nobel Prize for chemistry to Robert Curl Jr, Richard Smalley and Harold Kroto ‘for their discovery of fullerenes’. The British committee hurriedly reconvened and reversed its decision, this time granting the funding to Kroto. The British chemist, in fact, had now entered the narrow circle of so-called ‘visible scientists’, that elite of researchers on whom awards like the Nobel Prize confer almost unassailable prestige and a reputation able to open every door.

The British committee hurriedly reconvened and reversed its decision, this time granting the funding to Kroto.

This and related dynamics were described by the founder of the sociology of science, Robert K Merton, as the ‘Matthew effect’, from the passage in Matthew’s Gospel which states, ‘For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath’ (Matthew 25:29). Those in positions of visibility and prestige will have privileged access to further resources and positions of visibility, and so on. As a Nobel Prize-winner for physics put it: ‘The world is peculiar in this matter of how it gives credit. It tends to give the credit to [already] famous people’. Or in the words of a classic song by Swedish pop band Abba, “The winner takes it all”.

Since 1998, when I first had the occasion of visiting the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and being introduced to history of the Nobel Prize, I have been studying the role of the Nobel prize in shaping the public image of science – and of scientists – throughout the twentieth century. The Nobel Prize announcements are in fact one of the occasions when science makes global headline news in the media; the halo and reputation of the prize reaching even those audiences which are quite distant and not much interested in science; in fiction – from Hollywood movies to the Simpsons – ‘Nobel’ has become a metonymy for brilliant minds, genius, and successful science. According to the most recent data of the Science in Society Monitor, for example, 85 per cent of Italians know what the Nobel Prize is.

As another sociologist, Harriet Zuckerman, noted in her book The Scientific Elite (1977, 1996) “[the Nobel’s] influence on the public’s image of science probably counts for more than its function as incentive for scientific accomplishment”.

the prize gave a new language to scientific virtues such as modesty, humility, total dedication, body and soul, to the scientific enterprise

But how has the prize actually contributed to define the way we think about science and scientists? As I argue with several examples in the book, fundamentally through three popular narratives: the narrative of the scientist as genius, the narrative of the scientist as national hero and the narrative of the scientist as saint.

The narrative of genius emphasises the creativity of the scientist, the intellectual exceptionality that reflects a solitary and romantic ideal of great communicative impact. The narrative of the national hero allows the scientist awarded the Nobel to speak in the name of a nation, surrogating and sublimating in a more pacific and noble competition the tensions and rivalries among nations. The narrative of saint incarnates (also in a literary sense, since the body of the scientist, or more often, its disembodiment, becomes a focus of attention and worship, celebrated and consecrated through the elaborate ceremony ritual) the moral exceptionality of the scientist, updating the traditional ideal of the man of science as a secular ascetic.

To some extent, in terms of the public image and of the social role of science, one could define the Nobel as the “right prize at the right time”.

In a time when science was already becoming a more complex, organised and inevitably impersonal activity, the narrative of genius allowed a focus on individual contributions, figures and faces.

In a historical phase when the struggle and competition among nations was finding a peaceful alternative in occasions like the Olympic games or universal exhibitions, and science was beginning to be seen as expression of the strength of a nation, the prize offered an extraordinary occasion to express “political rivalry by other means”, favoured also by its placement in neutral Sweden.

In a period when the “moral exceptionality” of scientists began to be questioned and research was increasingly socially defined as a work rather than as a vocation, the prize gave a new language to scientific virtues such as modesty, humility, total dedication, body and soul, to the scientific enterprise.

Science largely remains for the general public an abstract and inscrutable entity. The Nobel Prize contributed to giving science faces and bodies, creating a rich and fascinating repertoire of stories. Together with the story that summarises them all, the only intuition that is celebrated every year, the greatest invention of the man who had 355 patents. In the words of a Nobel laureate during the banquet:

We applaud you, therefore, for your discovery, which has made a memorable contribution to civilization – I refer, Your Majesties and our Swedish hosts, to the institution of this unique prize, for which we, in the company of many others, thank you.