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Finnish expert finds most scientists wait over 20 years for Nobel

Zhao Qi | 2014-05-07
Chinese Social Sciences Today

The biggest pity about the Nobel Prize is that scholars have to wait for too long before they can finally win it, wrote Santo Fortunato, associate professor of complex systems at Aalto University, Finland, in an article in this month’s issue ofN ature.


Tracing the time between scien­tists’ discoveries and their receipt of the award, Fortunato found in the first thirty years the prize was awarded, between 1901 and 1940, only 20 percent of physicists who re­ceived a Nobel waited more than 20 years, while 15 percent of recipients in chemistry and 24 percent of recipi­ents in physiology or medicine wait­ed that long. After the mid-1980s, however, the number rose to 60%, 52% and 45% in physics, chemistry and physiology respectively.


Fortunato noted that if this contin­ues to be the case, more scientists are likely to miss this award. Recipients may not live long enough to receive the award, and the Nobel Prize can­not be awarded posthumously. For example, the physicist Robert Brout should have shared the Nobel Prize in physics together with François Englert and Peter Higgs in 2013, but unfortunately he had passed away two years before he could became a laureate, at age 82.


There are several explanations for the time lag. Some argue that the Nobel Committee may find more recent work less groundbreaking. Others maintain that for exactly the opposite reason—that there is a glut of recent groundbreaking work— committees try to go back and find older discoveries they think deserve the award before potential recipi­ents die. Another explanation is that the wait for the award is simply a reflection of the nature of scientific work: discoveries take time to prove their value.


(Translated by Jiang Hong, Revised by Charles Horne)