Dynamite Plan Bolsters Myth: The Nobel, Towering Genius

The Nobel Prize: A History of Genius, Controversy, and Prestige , by Burton Feldman. Arcade, 489 pages, $29.95.

The annual Nobel Prizes are the fall classic of the non-sporting world. Like the World Series, the Nobel is a modern response to an ancient task–separating winners from losers, heroes from ordinary guys. But getting a Nobel medal is harder than getting a World Series ring. The Nobel competition is international, and the rules of the game are opaque. Only about 700 individuals and 19 organizations have ever been tapped. Small wonder that a 2000 winner in economics told a television interviewer that he had measured his chances as “one in a million.”

The Nobel Prize: A History of Genius, Controversy, and Prestige is the first general history of the Nobel phenomenon. Having earned a doctorate in political philosophy and the history of science and ideas, Burton Feldman is at ease with his subject. He provides lucid capsule descriptions of what the winners wrote, thought and did. Simultaneously, he sketches out the many achievements–the literature of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, the physics of J. Robert Oppenheimer–that the Nobel selectors ignored. Mapping the paths they have taken and rejected, Mr. Feldman provides an overview of modern art, science and politics.

Mr. Feldman has not gained personal access to the secret chambers of the Nobel domain, nor has he systematically interviewed living laureates. This may disappoint some readers. Specialists will want more detail about their fields. Gossips will miss fresh dirt, diss and scandals. And yet, Mr. Feldman–at once ambitious and judicious–has pulled together a rich variety of materials to tell an intriguing, important story.

Alfred Nobel was a Swedish inventor and businessman who famously made a fortune in explosives and munitions. Two of his brothers made scads of money in oil. He was a secretive, lonely workaholic who idolized Percy Bysshe Shelley and wrote poetry and plays. When he died in 1896, he left his estate to be invested in “safe securities,” the interest to be spent on prizes for individuals of great achievement who had benefited mankind. They were to come from five fields: physics, chemistry, medicine or physiology (then new and radical), literature and peacemaking.

Commentators of an ironic bent have had a field day with the picture of an arms merchant supporting disarmament and peace congresses. In 1968, the Central Bank of Sweden created the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel.

Big fortunes left in unexpected ways excite bad feelings. Nobel’s legacy was no exception. Some relatives sulked. Sweden and France, where Nobel had maintained a home and private lab, each claimed him. The organizations that he had named to administer the prizes balked and fretted. Eventually, by 1901, the secretive machinery and routines of the selection process were devised, as were the rituals of the award ceremony (presided over by the Swedish royal family), which begin on Dec. 10 of each year, the anniversary of Nobel’s death. A decade later, the custom of announcing the awards in October was established.

Mr. Feldman explores three significant questions about the Nobel Prizes. The first is why they became so famous and influential. Today, a Nobel laureate is granted both a priestly aura and real powers. Perhaps most pervasively in the sciences, laureates shape fields and the public perception of them. Like everything that inspires public awe–and jealousy–the Nobels awaken the imp of satire, notably in the yearly anointing of the Ignobel Prizes. In part, the amount of money the prize carries (about $910,000 in 2000) matters; cash value blurs easily into cachet. Learning from the Nobel, newer prizes that want visibility and prestige often write big checks to the winners. Several early winners, especially Marie Curie, the poor student who suffered but triumphed for science, came equipped with compelling, media-friendly stories. Once famous, the prizes, like the Oscars, garnered publicity each year simply because they were there. Also, as Mr. Feldman rightly suggests, we need a bridge between “esoteric knowledge … high intellectual achievement and the marketplace.” We cannot understand exactly what a laureate did that is so magnificent, but we can understand the Nobel stamp of approval, the brand name. As Mr. Feldman writes, “Where comprehension fails, celebrity fills in.” We trust that “Nobelity” computes with nobility.

The true believer would assert that we respect, even revere, the Nobel Prize because the winners patently and intrinsically deserve it: Merit has triumphed over the mundane and mediocre. Mr. Feldman’s second question is whether it has. Lots of lobbying goes on; given the stakes, the politicking can get relentless. It is, however, only one feature of a selection process that is both competitive and standardized enough to produce a winning Nobel profile. Mr. Feldman sardonically offers practical advice to a Nobel wannabe: Try to live in Britain, the United States or Germany; go to an elite school; have a good mentor; be in the right place; work hard at the right problem; win other prizes; live a long time. (There is often a time-lag between achievement and Nobel recognition–16 years in the case of Einstein. In 1948, when T.S. Eliot was recognized, he was 60 years old and stooped with honors.)

The Nobel blunders are public knowledge. The man who pioneered pre-frontal lobotomies successfully angled for a Nobel; Dmitri Mendeleev, who invented the periodic table of the elements, was never a laureate. For decades, atomic physics was preferred to astrophysics and geophysics. One could list further examples–but every prize competition makes errors of commission and omission.

The third question that Mr. Feldman explores is why mistakes happen, even in this honorable competition. The sociology of prestigious prizes has had its pioneering work, such as Harriet Zuckerman’s study of American laureates in the sciences, but it is still immature, and Mr. Feldman’s work will help it to evolve. The Nobels, like all but the most flexible and idiosyncratic of prize competitions, must work within guidelines and parameters. They may ultimately constrict it–like plaque in an artery. The terms of Nobel’s will may have helped to deform the literature awards by demanding work of “an idealistic tendency.” In general, the prizes have underwritten the misleading myth of the towering genius whose solitary work would eventually help many. This stress on the heroic individual may sooner or later conflict with the nature of contemporary science, in which major work is done by teams–scores or hundreds or even thousands of people.

The genius-dubbing business is never any better than its selection process. The names that survive the process can be no more compelling than the names submitted: garbage in, garbage out. cronies and protégés in, cronies and protégés out. (This year’s laureate in literature, Gao Xingjian, has as his translator and benefactor one of the 18 members of the Swedish Academy–the tiny group charged with choosing the winner.) Also, people in the selection process can be at once manipulative and political (which corrodes fairness), and convinced of their own good faith and rectitude (which blinds them to their own weaknesses and those of their culture). Secrecy as strict as that which cloaks the Nobel Prize can hinder fresh, corrective criticism. During the Nobel century, only 29 women have been individual laureates (although Marie Curie won twice)–a symptom of the cultural pathology, which gatekeepers internalize, that severs “genius” and “womanhood.”

Mr. Feldman’s conclusions about the Nobels are measured, moderate and plausible. The science prizes emerge with the best record; literature, although it has become more adventurous and less parochial, has been mixed; peace, the most overtly political, reflects conflicts about its purpose; and economics is the most insular, questioned by several of its most prominent laureates and subject to Mr. Feldman’s overt scorn. On balance, he believes that the prizes are “healthier” than they were a century ago; a “desperately needed symbol of authority and coherence in an age when all standards are under attack”; and a stimulus for our capacity to wonder at greatness.

Some of Mr. Feldman’s most attractive laureates display a lovely modesty. Their humility reminds us of the mystery of great talent’s origin. Why should one person move more gracefully in the outfield than another? Why should one person’s paragraphs be more original than another’s? Why should one person’s insights into the structure of matter be more piercing than another’s? To answer these questions, we call on nature and nurture; but at heart, we do not fully know. We must be content with our gratitude for great talent’s gifts.

Catharine R. Stimpson is University Professor and Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Science at New York University. From 1994 to 1997, she directed the MacArthur Foundation Fellows Program.