And so once more to that time of year when nations join to celebrate the best of humanity, the overlooked sink into private despair, and the bookies clap their hands as punters lay bets that this year, finally, Bob Dylan will win the literature prize.
The latest members of the world’s most exclusive club, the Nobel laureates, will be announced this week, in a year with more than usual certainty that amid the smiles and champagne will be acrimony and regret.
The awards begin on Monday morning with the Nobel prize for physiology or medicine. Physics and chemistry follow on Tuesday and Wednesday, with the peace prize announced on Friday, and economics the following Monday. The date for the literature prize has not been set.
This year the physics prize is destined to ruffle feathers no matter who, or what, the Nobel committee honors. A popular favorite for the prize is Peter Higgs, the British octogenarian whose work in 1964 predicted the existence of the Higgs boson. When scientists at the Large Hadron Collider declared last July that they had discovered the particle, it marked the end of the greatest hunt in modern science. Many physicists in the community expect Higgs to win. Ken Peach, an Oxford physics professor, said it would be “a scandal” if Higgs was not honored this year.
But the physics committee cannot win. Give the prize for the Higgs theory, in which the eponymous boson appears, and they face another problem. A Nobel prize can be shared by a maximum of three people, but at least six physicists wrote out the theory in 1964. One – Belgian physicist Robert Brout – died in 2011. But five into three does still not go.
The committee can contrive the wording of the prize to narrow the number downwards and this is likely to happen. The prize could go to François Englert, who published the idea first, and Peter Higgs, who was second, but crucially was first to flag up the new particle. But that would rebuff the trio of Gerald Guralnik, Carl Richard Hagen and Tom Kibble, who developed the theory separately and published just a month after Higgs. The possibility has already caused acrimony among the scientists. Guralnik and Hagen, two US researchers, believe European physicists have conspired to erase their contribution from history.
David Pendlebury, an analyst at Thomson Reuters, compiles a list of potential winners each year from the company’s huge database of academic papers. He has a few contenders, but predicts the prize will go to Englert and Higgs.
“Traditionally I don’t have an opinion that one candidate is more likely than another, but this year is an exception,” he said. “I just cannot imagine that there will not be a prize for Peter Higgs. I don’t know what reason there would be to wait any longer.”
Even if the committee can sidestep the controversy-in-waiting, another problem lies in store. Predicting the existence of the Higgs boson is one thing. Finding it is another. That job fell to the 6,000 scientists on the Atlas and CMS collaborations at Cern, the particle physics laboratory near Geneva. The numbers reflect how modern science is done. And in this case, nothing is made easier by honoring only the leaders.
One option, suggested by a former secretary of the Nobel physics committee is for the prize to be split. Half would go to Englert and Higgs; the other half to Cern as an organisation. So far, only the peace prize has gone to an organisation, but only the physiology and medicine committee has an internal rule preventing them from doing the same. The physics committee could decide unilaterally to award to Cern. “They don’t have to change the internal rule book,” says Anders Bárány, secretary of the committee until 2003.
The season will start with the prize in physiology or medicine. Pendlebury has a number of contenders, including the trio of Adrian Bird at Edinburgh University, and Aharon Razin and Howard Cedar at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, for their work on epigenetics, the molecular volume controls that determine whether genes are switched on or off. Bárány wants to see more women win the prize and favors the Lasker prize recipient, Ingeborg Hochmair, who helped to develop the cochlear implant. “Since I have rather bad hearing myself I would be delighted to see a Nobel prize in physiology or medicine for this development,” he told the Guardian.
Last year, the Nobel prize for chemistry went to two medical doctors. The award prompted a run of articles declaring that the chemistry prize was now a prize for biology. But that is an oversimplification, according to David Phillips, former president of the Royal Society of Chemistry. “I think it’s a reflection of the role of chemistry in the life sciences. Advances are made and attributed to biology, but very often it’s the chemistry that leads to the development,” he said.
Pendlebury’s predictions for the chemistry prize this year include awards for DNA technology, and “modular click chemistry” which reduces waste in chemical manufacturing. His third proposal is Bruce Ames at Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute. Ames devised a test that uses microbes to show whether chemicals can cause cancer. Ames is Phillips’s favored winner. “The test has been enormously useful. He deserves the recognition,” he said.
The Norwegian Nobel committee has 259 candidates for the peace prize this year, a record number, which includes 50 organisations. Øivind Stenersen, an expert on the history of the peace prize and founder of Nobeliana.com said the committee often uses the prize to provoke discussion.
“The prize is a reflection of the Scandinavia view of the world. They want to export their ideas to the rest of the world. So if we manage to mobilize more women around the world, the world will be more peaceful.
“They pick candidates they know will draw a lot of debate. They want discussions to happen, because those discussions will get us closer to knowing what we need to achieve peace,” he said.
On Stenersen’s own shortlist of contenders are Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl who was shot in the head by the Taliban, and Denis Mukwege, a doctor in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who has treated thousands of women gang-raped and tortured during the civil war.
“I’d be surprised if the award didn’t go to this doctor,” Stenersen said.
A Russian advocacy group claims to have nominated Putin for the peace prize, but since they cite Russia’s moves to prevent US intervention in Syria, the nomination may have arrived after the 1 February deadline for this year.
The literature committee has whittled 195 candidates – including 48 first timers – down to a shortlist of five. The names are secret, but at Ladbrokes, the odds of some contenders have shortened spectacularly in recent days. Michael Orthofer, managing editor, at the Complete Review and its Literary Saloon, says Spanish novelist Javíer Marías and Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o are both serious contenders. But the biggest buzz on on the Ladbrokes list surrounds Jon Fosse, the Norwegian playwright, whose odds to win shortened from 100/1 to 9/1. Orthofer has two theories for the jump. “The size of the move suggests someone had a really good reason for thinking he is one of the finalists.” He suspects insider information or a very educated guess, perhaps based on seeing Swedish academy members clutching piles of Fosse’s books. But there might be another explanation.
“The odds started going up on his birthday, 29 September, so maybe some friends got together to put money on him to drive up the odds and get him some quick, easy publicity as a birthday present,” said Orthofer.
But what of Bob Dylan, who invariably rides high in bookies favorites?” Ladbrokes have made a killing on Dylan betting in years past. His odds have often shot up, suggesting a lot of betting on his name. And they’d be fools not to give punters the option of giving them money in this way.
“Unless there’s a diehard Dylan fan among the former laureates who keeps putting up his name, I would be surprised if he continues to figure among the eligible names. Personally I can’t imagine him ever getting the prize, or anywhere near the prize.”