Gods and Monsters

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William Blake, “The Ancient of Days”

Nobel prize awards are a time when the worlds of science and celebrity briefly coincide. Should we then use the prizes to promote diversity?

Human beings have an incurable urge to venerate. Today’s near-saturation coverage of celebrity culture means we seem to be expending our worship – or at least our attention – more on reality TV stars, footballers’ wives, sport idols, and performers of all descriptions than in the church. Marx judged religion to be the opiate of the masses, but if so then celebrity culture is its crack cocaine.

But given that increasingly secular direction of devotion, isn’t it actually better to worship footballers, actors, and…um…Love Island contestants than religious fanatics, demagogues, and military leaders? Stephen Fry has already pointed out that despite its superficial nature, contemporary celebrity culture is probably healthier for society than the rather more dangerous fascinations offered by nationalists, fundamentalists, and extremists of all stripes.

Scientists, with very few exceptions, are normally mercifully excluded from the maelstrom of the public’s gaze. But Nobel Prize season is the one time of the year when scientists are bona fide celebrities. The Nobel Prize announcements make headline news around the world, with the winners profiled, their work explained, and the significance trumpeted. This, most would agree, is a good thing. It’s surely better to (briefly) venerate scientists than most of today’s political gangs.

Should scientists venerate Nobelists? Do they? Of course not. We envy them. We may even begrudge them. We usually disparage them. People working in the year’s prize-winning field may or may not praise the winners depending on how well-liked they are; people outside the field may well just shrug their shoulders. 

This isn’t because scientists don’t value the Nobel. On the contrary, every scientist wants to win one. Unlike the Oscars, no scientist has ever (ever!) voluntarily turned down a Nobel. But the sheer breadth and specialisation of modern science has meant that predicting winners has gone from being an academic parlour game to an actual lottery. You’ve as much chance of predicting the winner as you have of finding the Queen getting drunk in a pub, and most times you’ll never have heard of the laureates prior to their announcement.

It’s partly the timescales involved. Film awards celebrate the work of the last 12 months, while the Nobel prize-winning contributions can quite plausibly be made years before your birth. Every generation needs its Hamlet, the role reinterpreted anew for each cohort, but science’s achievements tend to stand for longer. Once elements are discovered, they aren’t forgotten. They aren’t reinterpreted. But at the same time, an individual scientist’s work tends to be gradually effaced through improvements in spatiotemporal resolution. People come along with new techniques and do what you did, better.

Consequently, almost no scientists, even Nobelists, achieve actual immortality. Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, Watson, Crick…very few approach that kind of recognition. Linus Pauling, John Bardeen, Marie Skłodowska Curie and Fred Sanger all won two Nobels apiece (two!), and yet probably only Marie Curie enjoys anything like general name recognition in wider circles.

Despite that transience, there are tangible benefits to being a Nobelist – not least a roughly two-year boost to life expectancy (no kidding!) and an inexhaustible supply of invitations for after-dinner speeches. The scientists and even their work may remain obscure, but “Nobel prize winners” as a scientific caste have status, brand recognition, and automatic respect. Nobel prize-winners are box office.

And with all that in mind, isn’t it worth asking if the Nobel Prizes could actually be used to promote science’s diversity a bit more? Science loves to present itself as an international endeavour practiced the world over, but its Nobel Prize-winners are strikingly uniform. The 2014 Academy Awards had its #OscarsSoWhite backlash after a jaw-dropping lack of diversity in its nominees, but film awards are positively kaleidoscopic compared to the parade of old(er) white men who generally get to bask in the Swedish Academy’s acclaim. Only 20 STEM Nobels have ever been awarded to women (and don’t forget, two of them went to Curie). No STEM Nobels have ever been won by black people of either gender. Tu Youyou (China) and Ada Yonath (Israel) are the only female Asian recipients of STEM Nobel prizes.

Such an initiative wouldn’t be a quota or positive discrimination – success in research has a large dose of luck, and as noted already, there are enough people out there who have been both smart and lucky to generate an inexhaustible supply of nominees. Regardless of the prize winners, the heads of learned societies will trot out to say it’s a fantastic achievement and well deserved. Nobody ever disputes – or almost never disputes – the allocation of the prize itself because (almost?) all fields deserve recognition. Every scientist thinks their work is important and relevant because they wouldn’t do it if not. Would such an initiative devalue the prizes? Of course not. It’s already contentious that people often receive prizes for work primarily carried out by their subordinates, whose contributions may be devalued, sometimes deliberately so.

The success of the movie “Black Panther” was in many ways a watershed for cinema. Was it significantly better than other recent action films? No. But it was refreshing and rightly hailed because it was diverse. One of the most profound outpourings came from superhero fans – of both the film and comic variety – belonging to non-white demographics, saying that they loved the genre but never saw people like them in the material they consumed. People like them never got to be superheroes. The effect of seeing a superhero that looked like them was empowering, aspirational. And how hard would it be to find science superheroes of different sexes and colours? 

There are loads of worthy winners out there, so why not make an effort to find ones that send out a positive signal about science’s diversity? Then we could have a real pantheon of Gods to (temporarily) worship, instead of endless avatars of the old white dude.

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