Published 27 June 2012 by
Why are Nobel Prizes important?
There is no other prize in the intellectual realm with the prestige of the Nobel Prizes. They also have a visibility that can hardly be compared to any other. But why are they important? What do they contribute to society? In an age in which we are gradually losing whole sets of values, fundamentally humanistic ones, the Nobel Prizes are one of our last bastions. We seek in them a reference, not only of excellence, but of honesty, enthusiasm, commitment to ideals, that inspires both laymen and professionals. Many of the winners were recognized among his peers as unique individuals, long before they were awarded the Prize. And afterwards they have continued to behave like people with great human qualities. That is why living with them for a week in a relaxed atmosphere in Lindau can be a tremendous inspiration and example for the young, and not so young, who come from
all over the world to share their experiences with them, listen to their advice and feel one with them.
Of all the Nobel Prizes, those of Science – Medicine, Physics and Chemistry – have a more fundamental character, there is a degree of truth associated with them that is not present in the Nobel Prize for Peace and Literature – and later also of Economy – and yet they all help build what we might call the "Great Humanity". Their findings not only generate progress and allow society to develop, but also help us to know ourselves. Detailed knowledge about the laws and mechanisms governing Nature may have no immediate application, but make us aware of our own place in the Universe, help us be more modest, more aware of our environment. As Blaise Pascal said, "The true greatness of mankind is to realize its own littleness."
It is precisely that humility bath which is breathed in Lindau. In fact, it is possible that not all awardees are equally aware of the importance of some of the most recent discoveries, and moreover they may hold divergent views on them, such as Martinus Veltman and David Gross on the reality of the Higgs boson – whose discovery at the CERN LHC collider will most probably break the news during our stay in Lindau -, but nevertheless they will never cease to respect each other and discuss as gentlemen, even though with passion and conviction. The same is true of John Mather and George Smoot on the origin of the Universe, their views may be different but they will not stop listening to their colleagues, trying to convince each other with their arguments, i.e. do Science, in short. I have known many of these investigators well before being awarded the Nobel Prize, and while they clearly stood out for their scientific achievements, I have never seen them make abuse of their position of preeminence.
Returning to the universal character of the Nobel Prizes, in my opinion, we are missing among them some disciplines such as Mathematics or Biology, that have no place in today’s Nobel Prizes – i.e. they are neither Physics nor Medicine – and perhaps it is time to extend and update them. It is true that this debate has appeared several times in the past, and that the Nobel Committee has consistently dismissed it, arguing that it is reluctant to increase the number of awards since they consider that the Nobel Prizes already take into account the present diversification of disciplines. Nevertheless, I envision as very difficult the recognition with a Nobel Prize of fundamental discoveries in ecology, paleontology and evolution in biological sciences, and in topology, geometry, functional analysis in mathematics, while these branches of science have in fact generated enormous progress in their respective disciplines. I believe that a debate on the future of the Nobel Prizes would be a healthy exercise for those attending the meeting in Lindau.