Bruce A. Beutler, Jules A. Hoffmann, Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt, Adam Riess, Ralph M. Steinman and Dan Shechtman. Seven new Nobel Laureates and seven new names to include in the most exclusive club in science.
The Nobel prize comes with a trip to Stockholm, a gold medal and a share of million dollar prize. But perhaps even more than that, it provides a cachet that extends beyond the world of science and into the every day. Nobel lauretes are recognized as the best of the best: people whose intellectual achievements have changed the way we think of the world. The gravitas we attach to people who can put ‘Nobel Prize winning scientist’ in front of their name means their opinions are afforded special status. Indeed, listening to people who ought to know what they’re talking about is a pretty good way to learn about the world. But a Nobel Prize doesn’t represent a barrier to sloppy thinking. In fact, if anything there seems to be tendency for acknowledgement of expertise in one area to provide an unfounded confidence to speak out on other subjects. Some laureates have fallen for the most appalling anit-scientific rubbish. So much so, the term “Nobel Prize Syndrome” or “Nobel Disease” has been coined to describe this phenomenom. So, without wishing to take any of the gloss of this year’s Nobelists, here is a list of some of those that were brought low by the Nobel Disease.
Linus Pauling (Chemistry and Peace, Vitamin C fanatic)
Surely the saddest case. Pauling was a supreme scientist, one of the first chemists to get serious about using the tools of physical chemistry to understand the basis of biology. His most famous contribution was pioneering methods that use what we know about the nature of chemical bonds to find the structure of biological chemicals. Evolutionary biologists like me remember him as the guy the first proposed that we could use the rate of change in chemical structures to measure evolutionary time between species. He’s also the only person to have won a
real science Nobel and the Nobel Peace Prize – the latter coming for his activism for nuclear nonproliferation.
Then there was the vitamin C business. Pauling became convinced that high doses of vitamin C would cure.. well, amost everything. The initial results of Pauling’s research were promising, but it soon became clear they wouldn’t hold up to more rigourous tests. It seems Pauling’s belief was stronger than any evidence, and he doubled down, advoacting high does of vitamin C in popular and scientific works. Today it’s almost impossible to talk to an advocate of these cures without having Pauling’s name thrown add you.
Kary Mullis (Chemistry, HIV denialist)
If Pauling is the saddest case of the Nobel Disease, Kary Mulllis might just be the oddest. Mullis is credited with inventing the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) – a method used hundreds of thousands of times every day in molecular biology labs around the world to amplify small, specific regions of DNA. I can’t even imagine how you’d do genetics without PCR, so his achievement is certainly worth the prize. But he is seriously strange. When people talk about Mullis’ personality, they emphasise his use of LSD and his love of surfing and motorbikes. I guess that’s quirky, but science takes all sorts and none of those would make him unique among Nobel Laureates. However, I’m not sure there has ever been an acceptance speech quite like his. Before Mullis embarked on his career in biochemistry he had a go at being a novelist, and his speech reflected this:
And now as December threatened Christmas, Jennifer, that crazy, wonderful woman chemist, had dramatically left our house, the lab, headed to New York and her mother, for reasons that seemed to have everything to do with me but which I couldn’t fathom. I was beginning to learn tragedy. It differs a great deal from pathos, which you can learn from books. Tragedy is personal. It would add strength to my character and depth someday to my writing. Just right then, I would have preferred a warm friend to cook with. Hold the tragedy lessons. December is a rotten month to be studying your love life from a distance.
So, I don’t think much of his writing, but he won a Nobel Prize and I’m some guy writing a blog – so it’s hard for me to pick on him for that. Sadly, he’s done much worse. In his autobiography he claimed the theories of Ozone depletion and climate change were the result of a conspiracy between scientists and government organisations seeking to continue their funding. Even worse, he is an HIV denialist. Mullis has never done any scientific research on HIV or AIDs, but PCR is, on rare occasions, used to diagnose HIV. You can imagine the mileage that those strange people that deny the link between HIV and AIDS get from being able to say “the inventor of the PCR test doesn’t even believe it!”Mullis has gone to say anti-retrovirals don’t work and agree that AIDS isn’t a disease that people who lead “normal, American lifestyles” run much of a risk of developing.
Also there is something is his book about being visited by a fluorescent alien raccoon.
William Shockley (Physics, Eugenicist)
Among other things, Shockley’s argued those with an IQ under 100 should be paid to be sterilised, and he provided samples to the wonderfully named “Repository for Germinal Choice” (dubbed the Nobel Prize sperm bank in the media”) in the hope his sperm would make the world a better place.
Brian Josephson (Physics, Parapsychologist)
Josephson won his Nobel Prize for his PhD work on superconductivity. Having been awarded the prize while he was still a Reader at Cambridge (and academic rank equivalent to Associate Professor in many other countries) he can now pretty much do what he wants with his life. And what he mainly wants to do is explore the stange and wonderful world of “quantum mysticism” including ideas like telepathy and precognition. I don’t really know what else to say about Josephson, except read his webpage and find out for yourself.
Luc Montagnier (Medicine, Homoeopathy supporter)
Niko Tinbergen (Medicine, supported “Refigerator Mother” theory)