Nobel Prize means more for media than for science – a personal account

Peter C. Doherty picks up his Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1996. AFP

By the time someone gets to the stage of being considered seriously for a Nobel Prize in the sciences, it’s likely they will be very well known in their own research field; their particular discovery, or technological breakthrough, will have attracted prestigious awards of one type or another.

That was certainly the case for us in 1996.

My colleague Rolf Zinkernagel and I had, over the years, been recognised by what are effectively the national biomedical science prizes of Germany (Paul Ehrlich Prize), Canada (Gairdner International Award) and the USA (Lasker Award).

These ceremonies generally involve the provision of business-class airfares, a night or two in a prestigious hotel, and an elaborate dinner or lunch. Press interest is usually minimal and, if it’s a light media day, the organisers may be lucky enough to get something on page two or three of the local “quality” newspaper.

About half the people who pick up a Lasker Basic Science Award go on to win a Nobel Prize: receiving the Lasker in 1995, though, in no way prepared us for the media frenzy that followed the Nobel announcement a year later.


Perhaps as a consequence of being the first and most comprehensive of the major awards in the sciences, for peace and for literature, the Swedish Prize (The Nobel) is both part of the general public consciousness and a recognised event on the annual media calendar.

About as rare as the proverbial hen’s teeth, a total of 813 individuals and 23 organisations have been awarded a Nobel Prize since they were instituted in 1901.

That number includes the recipients of the Sveriges Riksbank Banks Prize in Economic Sciences in memory of Alfred Nobel, a later addition known colloquially as the Nobel Prize for Economics.

Contrast that with the 302 gold medals given out at the 2008 Beijing summer Olympics.

Apart from the obvious difference in physical ability, Olympic gold medalists are likely to be much younger and much better known in the community than any Nobel Prize winner in the sciences.

Also, Olympic athletes sometimes win several gold medals, whereas only four scientists – John Bardeen, Marie Curie, Linus Pauling and Frederick Sanger – have been recognised more than once by one or other Nobel committee, and even then at very long intervals.

What the award of a Nobel Prize does, then, is thrust someone who is likely to have been a relatively private person on to the public stage.

The recipients are generally in their fifties or sixties, with the youngest ever being 25 (Lawrence Bragg, Physics 1915) and the oldest being 90 (Leonid Hurwicz, Economics 2007).

At least for Medicine, the famous call is made around 9:30am Stockholm time on the first Monday in October.

A US resident (I was living in Memphis in 1996) has the experience of being woken by the telephone in the early hours of the morning. In Perth, West Australians Barry Marshall and Robin Warren (Medicine 2005) were evidently at the pub. Each October the two scientists had been meeting at a pub in Perth to joke about winning the Nobel Prize. In 2005, it happened.

Barry Marshall and Robin Warren. AFP/ Pressens Bild /Jonas Ekstromer

Though the individual may be aware at some level that a Nobel Prize is a possibility, they will not even know they have been nominated if the rules have been followed correctly. My guess is that everyone is very surprised when that telephone rings. They certainly have no idea what they’re in for.

I’d always wondered how, if the call did come, I’d know that it wasn’t a hoax. But it was obvious: the voice on the line was clearly Swedish and the tone of the message was sincere.

I was told we had ten minutes to notify family and friends before the official announcement was made to the press and warned that, once that happened, our telephone would ring off the hook.

That removed any lingering doubt as the calls came in from Reuters, talkback radio in Bogota, the Sydney Morning Herald and so forth.

Though we have it recorded somewhere, the next few days are a blur of press interviews, television cameras and photographers. That continued through the Nobel Year, and beyond.

A further big surprise was receiving a call just before Christmas telling me that I was to be the 1997 Australian of the Year. That led to several trips back and forth through the subsequent 12 months providing, among other things, an in-depth experience of interacting with the Australian media.

The learning curve with this was acute, and I learned quickly the only safe means of public communication is direct-to-air TV or radio, or something that you write yourself and is not subject to editorial alteration.

But it’s more important to make a statement than to be safe, and you soon get used to the idea of “win a few, lose a few”, especially when it comes to Australian newspapers.

The Nobel Class of 1996. AFP

Over the years, “Nobel Prize winner” has become an additional job description, providing some access to the media that I’ve used to push the importance of evidence-based enquiry.

Whenever possible, I take the opportunity to speak to broader audiences about what’s happening in science and the value of science in the community, and have also written two “lay” books – The Beginner’s Guide to Winning the Nobel Prize and A Light History of Hot Air – dealing with such issues. Two more should come out in 2012.

Another passion has been to promote the importance of quality public education in both schools and universities. That’s what gave me my break, and I am convinced that we lose out badly if those opportunities are not available to every young Australian, no matter what their family situation.

To quote the motto of the UNCF, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste”, and we can’t afford to waste a single good mind in this country.

So far as my own science has been concerned, apart from taking time, the Nobel connection has made no obvious difference either to our access to research funding or to publication in leading journals.

And it shouldn’t.

Real status in science is based on current performance, not on past achievement. That’s much of my quarrel with these old geologists and meteorologists who denigrate the active climate science community.

Once you stop doing science, a good maxim is: “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all”. As the German physics Nobelist Max Planck said, “Science advances one funeral at a time”.

If retired scientists can’t support the current consensus in science, they do everyone a favor by keeping silent.