Cover image for The politics of excellence : behind the Nobel Prize in science
The politics of excellence : behind the Nobel Prize in science
Friedman, Robert Marc, 1949-
Publication Information:
New York, New York : Henry Holt and Company, [2001]

Physical Description:
379 pages ; 25 cm
Format :


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QC49 .F75 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Reveals all the politics & personal agendas that dictate who has been awarded the Prize, & just as importantly, who has not. Published in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of the Prizes.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Where interest in the history of science and the interaction between science and society is strong, this study of how the Nobel Prizes in physics and chemistry have been awarded should attract readers. Friedman spent years researching this subject in Sweden and, more recently, Norway. His analysis begins with the ambiguities of the bequest with which Alfred Nobel established the prizes, ambiguities that have fueled countless battles over the years. But the prizes also crystallized other disagreements: about the nature of science and research; the relative value of various scientific specialties; how to allocate credit when a number of researchers achieve similar scientific breakthroughs. In addition to demonstrating that the Nobel selection process has often been something less than an objective search for excellence, Friedman suggests that, in a collaborative, cumulative enterprise like science, highly publicized awards to individuals may send precisely the wrong message. --Mary Carroll

Publisher's Weekly Review

This idealistic study underscores the personal, scientific and cultural self-interest behind the selection of the Nobel Prizes in physics and chemistry. Friedman, professor of history at the University of California at San Diego, traces the prize since Alfred Nobel's enigmatic testament became public in 1897. He examines those nominations and awards that fell short of Nobel's vision of the "best" in science, instead rewarding middling achievement. Albert Abraham Michelson, for instance, won the Nobel in 1907 for mastering precision measurement, the specialty of one committee member that year; his attempt to measure Earth's movements within the ether, meanwhile, is widely considered his greater achievement, as it spurred the physics establishment's move away from the ether theory. Today, Friedman argues, the title of Nobel Laureate offers prestige and resources; Nobel's wish that the prize recognize people providing "the greatest benefit to mankind" can be overshadowed by "narrow professional interests, boosterism, and careerist advancement." Friedman seeks to reassert Nobel's vision by revealing malfeasance behind the award. Albert Einstein provides the most well-known example: his 1921 prize was delayed for a year by a provincial, stiff-necked academy that recognized Einstein's law of photoelectric effect, but not relativity theory. Friedman's painstaking research sometimes yields heavy-handed analysis. His outrage at Nobel politics results in an uncompromisingly limited view of progress in science, which, from Galileo onward, has rarely come easily. The Nobel archives are unavailable after 1950, further frustrating the book's scope and forcing the author to sprint through the later history with parting shots and a hasty though well-reasoned appeal for change. With less 20-20 hindsight and greater objectivity, this book would fill a pop-historical void. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Like most people, this reviewer has often wondered, "Just how are the Nobel prize winners selected?" This book will definitely answer that question. While Friedman (history, Univ. of California, San Diego) has achieved his goal of writing a science history accessible to the general reader, it is not for those wanting a light read. Well written and free of complicated scientific discussion, this book is a comprehensive and scholarly account of the prize's century-old history, complete with several appendixes and 72 pages of notes. Friedman, a noted historian of the physical sciences, does a superior job of placing the committee's decisions in their historical settings. For instance, he explains why Albert Einstein won the prize for his work on the photoelectric effect and not for the theory of relativity. While he does discuss the prizes for chemistry and physics, he does not cover those given for physiology/ medicine, literature, or peace. The author, who had access to the Nobel archives, spent 20 years researching this book, and it shows. Strongly recommended for large public and academic libraries. James Olson, Northeastern Illinois Univ., Chicago (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

Prefacep. ix
Author's Note and Acknowledgmentsp. xi
Introduction: Legendary Excellencep. 1
Part I Permanent Battles Will Surely be Waged for Every Prizep. 11
1 The Stupidest Use of a Bequest That I Can Imagine!p. 13
2 Coming Apart at the Seamsp. 26
3 Sympathy for an Area Closely Connected with My Own Specialtyp. 40
4 Each Nobel Prize Can Be Likened to a Swedish Flagp. 54
Part II Has the Swedish Academy of Sciences ... Seen Nothing, Heard Nothing, and Understood Nothing?p. 69
5 Should the Nobel Prize Be Awarded in Wartime?p. 71
6 While the Sores Are Still Dripping Blood!p. 93
Part III Small Popes in Uppsalap. 117
7 Einstein Must Never Get a Nobel Prizep. 119
8 To Sit on a Nobel Committee Is Like Sitting on Quicksandp. 141
9 Clamor in the Academyp. 163
Part IV Don't Shoot the Piano Player, He's Doing the Best He Canp. 177
10 It Can Happen That Pure Pettiness Entersp. 179
11 One Ought to Think the Matter Over Twicep. 190
Part V Scandalous Trafficp. 211
12 Dazzling Dialectsp. 213
13 Completely Lacking an Unambiguous, Objective Standardp. 225
14 The Knights Templarp. 251
Further Reflectionsp. 267
Appendix Ap. 279
Appendix Bp. 284
Appendix Cp. 286
Notesp. 289
Indexp. 361