The short answer is you can win a Nobel Prize but you most probably won’t. And I think you won’t be surprised by this blunt answer. Primarily because you yourself would never have imagined that you’d even aspire for and win a Nobel Prize. I mean, who does? Except perhaps for that one guy who really did ask this question! One can surmise that most, if not all, the ones who win a Nobel Prize would ever have aspired to be winners! Unless these scientists/litterateurs/economists saw their work right in front of their eyes – in it’s finalized form, the kind of work which was at once consequential, elegant, and recognized as being worthy of a Nobel by their peers, they wouldn’t aspire to be Nobel Prize winners. And I think that this is the right attitude – being too smug and happy about one’s work will most probably make one complacent and reduce the edge and quality of one’s work. And of course, one can only hope for the kind of recognition that a Nobel provides at that final stage which occurs after all the blood and sweat has already gone into their work.
Can I win a Nobel Prize? If yes, which one?
Mind you, this article is not about the Nobel Peace Prize – as no sort of training will get you that prize (although your political affiliations might!). The others i.e. Medicine, Economics, Physics, Chemistry, (Mathematics has its own Fields Medal every 4 years for the best mathematicians below 40 years of age) however, are up for grabs – at least technically, even though the probability that you’ll ever make it is a tiny one – yet the important thing is that the probability, however miniscule is there. Once you do some great work in the academy or even as a writer, you could be nominated for and win a Nobel Prize by qualified nominators – these are usually members of the national assemblies/parliaments, or the members of the International Court of Justice, university professors, academics of high repute in various fields, even former recipients of the Prize and most often the present and past members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee – the committee which gives out the Nobel Prize on behalf of the Alfred Nobel estate, where-from the award’s name is borrowed, as well as its monetary sum, a whopping 1.5 million dollars!
How did they win a Nobel Prize?
Some of the most famous Nobel Laureates of all times have been those whose genius had been widely regarded even before they won the Nobel Prize. Think of the Mathematician John Nash whose work had great implications in not just economics but various other fields, and only then was he nominated for the Nobel Prize. Or of the father of neo-liberal economics Milton Friedman, who was already a towering figure before he got the Prize. The same is the case of V. S. Naipaul, the literateur extraordinaire who charmed readers with his ‘A House for Mr. Biswas’ and produced other incredible novels, short stories and essays throughout his life, notably “In a Free State” which won the Booker Prize in 1971 (His Nobel Prize came only in 2001). Why such late recognition? This is because in “fields” like literature, or even economics and of course in the controversial “Peace Prize”, the Nobel Committe might want to look at a person’s whole body of work before bestowing the honour upon him or her. Perhaps one of the most famous Nobel Prize in “Physiology or Medicine” went to Francis Crick, James Watson and Maurice Wilkins for their “discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material”. When were the discoveries made? The major work of studying the DNA using x-rays was done in the 1950s by Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin. The DNA structure was later worked out by Watson and Crick to be a double-helix. Wilkins, Watson and Crick shared the prize in 1962. But wait, what happened to Rosalind Franklin? She had died four years earlier and her contribution was acknowledge only years later. So another lesson for you, especially if you’re a woman, is that don’t die before you make you document and publicise your fantabulous discovery! (Put everything down in black and white and keep records of your contributions or three white men will steal your credit and your prize money!).
As we’ve seen, some unknown scientists working on some pretty inscrutable and less-known problems in science might come across some great discovery. At times, even by sheer luck. Whereas, there have been scientists who had remained largely unknown even after their breakthroughs, sometimes even struggling for a faculty position, until finally their work had been recognized far enough to be considered for the Nobel Prize. Such was the case with John Bardeen, who shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1956, more than two decades his “researches on semiconductors and their discovery of the transistor effect“. He won another Nobel Prize in 1972 for his theory of superconductivity called the BCS-effect.
Make original contributions to win a Nobel Prize!
As with most highly motivated academics I know, these scientists were also working towards making an original contribution in the sciences – by taking forward the sum of knowledge in their fields, by pushing further the boundaries in their respective areas. Bertrand Russell, who is known for his contributions to logic, metaphysics, and epistemology, won the Nobel Prize in 1950 for Literature for, as the committee said, “in recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought”. Russell is one of the most lucid philosophers and critics you’ll ever read, and he has left profound critiques of totalitarianism, social and religious conservatism, and oppression in all its form. One could argue that what’s new in that? Hadn’t any other contemporary with Russell done the same, with even more force? One could argue and take names as well – but it is true that in his lifetime, he was one of the most prolific and the most influential – in fact one’s influence can be a plus-point. If have the pulling power that someone like Russell had can you influence people further through your pen. It seems then that merit is not the only thing that will win you honours – influence can get you awards, and by extension more influence!
So try hard – not to win a Nobel – but to become the very best at what you do – and maybe your work will one day become influential enough to deserve the tag of the Nobel Prize.
You may also like to read about a brief history of Nobel Prize and some crazy geniuses who turned down their Nobel Prize.