The Politics of Excellence: Behind the Nobel Prize in Science

The Politics of Excellence: Behind the Nobel Prize in Science

by Robert Marc Friedman


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The Nobel Prize is widely seen as a mark of genius and the greatest reward a scientist can receive in his or her career. Universities and research institutions vie with each other to attract Nobel laureates, and students in the sciences dream of one day being prizewinners themselves. How could we possibly doubt the integrity of this prestigious award?

In this first in-depth study of the Nobel archives, Robert Marc Friedman reveals a prize that is above neither the dictates of fashion and politics, nor the personal agendas of committee members. The cases of Albert Einstein and Lise Meitner are only the best known among many that Friedman examines that underscore how on more than one occasion it has conferred acclaim on mediocrity and denied true brilliance its due. Chronicling the prize's 100-year history, he charts how, in spite of recurring controversy, the prize has attained to the prominence it holds today.

An eye-opening look at one of our greatest cultural icons, The Politics of Excellence ultimately questions the legacy of the Nobel Prize in a culture characterized by intense competition for resources, indecorous commercialism, and hype.

Friedman deftly pulls back the curtain to reveal a vivid and sometimes emotional politics behind the selection of Nobel laureates. For all those interested in science and its history, this is a must read book.
Robert H. Kargon, Johns Hopkins University

The Politics of Excellence goes to the heart of the Nobel Prize in physics and chemistry, and liberates history from misconception. Friedman's access has been unprecedented and his conclusions are provocative. No one truly interested in the Prize can afford to miss it. —Roy MacLeod, University of Sydney

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780716731030
Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 10/28/2001
Edition description: REV
Pages: 400
Product dimensions: 6.48(w) x 9.58(h) x 1.29(d)

Table of Contents

Introduction: Legendary Excellence

Part I: Permanent Battles Will Surely Be Waged for Every Prize
Launching the Nobel Enterprise, 1897-1914
Chapter 1: The Stupidest Use of a Bequest that I Can Imagine!
Securing Alfred Nobel's Vision
Chapter 2: Coming Apart at the Seams
Desperately Seeking Consensus in Chemistry
Chapter 3: Sympathy for an Area Closely Connected with My Own Specialty
Bias in Awarding the Physics Prize
Chapter 4: Each Nobel Prize Can Be Likened to a Swedish Flag
Excellence as Propriety and Prerogative

Part II: Has the Swedish Academy of Sciences...Seen Nothing, Heard Nothing, and Understood Nothing?
World War I, Biased Neutrality, and the End of a Nobel Dream
Chapter 5: Should the Nobel Prize be Awarded in Wartime?
The Cultural Politics of Neutrality, 1914-15
Chapter 6: While the Sores Are Still Dripping Blood!
Nobel Passions: Defending Kulture, 1916-19

Part III: Small Popes in Uppsala
Arrogance and Agenda: The Physics Prize, 1920-33
Chapter 7: Einstein Must Never Get a Nobel Prize
Keeping Physics Safe for Sweden
Chapter 8: To Sit on a Nobel Committee is Like Sitting on Quicksand
Disciplining and its Discontents
Chapter 9: Clamor in the Academy
Taking Charge of the Committee

Part IV: Don't Shoot the Piano Player, He's Doing the Best He Can
The Quest for a Nobel Standard in Chemistry, 1920-40
Chapter 10: It Can Happen that Pure Pettiness Enters
Out of Touch, Out of Depth: A Bewildered Chemistry Committee
Chapter 11: One Ought to Think the Matter Over Twice
Committee Renewal and Biochemical Bias

Part V: Scandalous Traffic
Subverting Nobel's Legacy in the Name of Science, 1933-51
Chapter 12: Dazzling Dialectics
Withholding Prizes, Reserving Judgment
Chapter 13: Completely Lacking an Unambiguous Objective Standard
Big Science and Diminutive Morals: The Authority of Prizes
Chapter 14: Knights Templar
Into the Age of Nobel "Geniuses" and the Banality of "Excellence"

Further Reflections

Notes and Sources

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