Great Explanations

By Mark Lorch

20 top scientists on the best things they ever learnt

Monday, 4 October 2021

How to win a Nobel prize; top tips from Kit Chapman

Its Nobel prize week! And so a perfect time to trail Kit Chapman's chapter in Great Explanations, where he'll explain the strategies you'd need to adopt if you want any chance of claiming that most prestigious of scientific gongs. 

For those seeking the glory of the Nobel prize, the good news is you don’t even have to get the science right: there are numerous cases of the committee making some horrendous mistakes. In 1926, the physiology or medicine prize was handed out to Johannes Fibiger, a Danish doctor who’d discovered that stomach cancer in rats was caused by roundworm parasites. The results had caused a sensation and were backed up by other scientists. The only problem is that Fibiger’s roundworm were innocent, and the results were probably due to starving his animals of vitamin A. In 1949, António Egas Moniz won the same prize for developing a surgical procedure he called a leucotomy –better known as a lobotomy. The ‘treatment’ resulted in more than 100,000 people around the world becoming incapacitated and has no place in modern medicine.

Nobel errors aren’t all bad, though. In 1938, Enrico Fermi, arguably the greatest physicist of the 20th century, scooped the physics gong for, among other things, “his demonstrations of the existence of new radioactive elements”. Sadly, while Fermi’s theory was sound, he hadn’t made any new elements at all – a month after the prize was awarded, it was found he’d been inadvertently blowing his samples apart into fragments of smaller, already-known elements. Yet for Fermi, the award was deliverance; his wife Laura was Jewish, and he’d been looking for an excuse to flee fascist Italy with his family. Collecting the Nobel prize in Sweden was the perfect pretext; by the time the truth was discovered, the Fermis had left Sweden for the UK, then hopped on the first ship to the United States.

Kit is a chemist, turned science historian and award winning science writer. Check out his excellent book 'Superheavy: Making and Breaking the Periodic Table' . He's currently traveling the world whilst researching his new book on technology in motor sports. You can follow him on his travel on twitter where he goes by the name of @chemistrykit

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