THE POLITICS OF EXCELLENCE: Behind the Nobel Prize in Science

Robert Marc Friedman, Author . W.H. Freeman $27.50 (379p) ISBN 978-0-7167-3103-0

This idealistic study underscores the personal, scientific and cultural self-interest behind the selection of the Nobel Prizes in physics and chemistry. Friedman, professor of history at the University of California at San Diego, traces the prize since Alfred Nobel's enigmatic testament became public in 1897. He examines those nominations and awards that fell short of Nobel's vision of the "best" in science, instead rewarding middling achievement. Albert Abraham Michelson, for instance, won the Nobel in 1907 for mastering precision measurement, the specialty of one committee member that year; his attempt to measure Earth's movements within the ether, meanwhile, is widely considered his greater achievement, as it spurred the physics establishment's move away from the ether theory. Today, Friedman argues, the title of Nobel Laureate offers prestige and resources; Nobel's wish that the prize recognize people providing "the greatest benefit to mankind" can be overshadowed by "narrow professional interests, boosterism, and careerist advancement." Friedman seeks to reassert Nobel's vision by revealing malfeasance behind the award. Albert Einstein provides the most well-known example: his 1921 prize was delayed for a year by a provincial, stiff-necked academy that recognized Einstein's law of photoelectric effect, but not relativity theory. Friedman's painstaking research sometimes yields heavy-handed analysis. His outrage at Nobel politics results in an uncompromisingly limited view of progress in science, which, from Galileo onward, has rarely come easily. The Nobel archives are unavailable after 1950, further frustrating the book's scope and forcing the author to sprint through the later history with parting shots and a hasty though well-reasoned appeal for change. With less 20-20 hindsight and greater objectivity, this book would fill a pop-historical void. (Nov.)

Reviewed on: 10/15/2001
Release date: 01/01/2001
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