There have been people who resented winning the Nobel Prize. And I don’t mean they actually looked down upon it with disrespect. I simply mean that they were terrified of the rock-star status and the public celebrity aura that accompanies the receipt of the prize. When the famously taciturn English physicist Paul Dirac won the prize, a reporter called him up to ask him what he felt. Dirac asked the reporter whether there was a way he could actually decline the prize and avoid publicity. The reporter, who was probably a little more worldly-wise than Dirac, replied that Dirac risked facing much more publicity if he declined the prize; it was probably best to boldly face the resulting mobbing.

John Bardeen, the only person to have won two Nobel Prizes in physics, felt annoyed that he had to interrupt his Nobel-Prize winning work on superconductivity when he had to go to Stockholm for being honored for his Nobel-Prize winning work on the transistor. Both responses were probably more measured though than Richard Feynman’s response; Feynman was woken up early in the morning by a reporter who told him about the prize. Even after hearing this Feynman expressed irritation and asked the reporter why he could not have waited a little longer to tell him this instead of interrupting his sleep. Or so at least the story goes.

But let’s face it; the kind of public status achieved by the prize is completely antithetical to the nature of most scientists. Most scientists want to be quietly left to their own devices (or molecules, or equations or viruses) and want to pursue their research with singular contemplation and dedication. Most scientists don’t want to become public propagandists for any kind of cause or discipline. Roger Kornberg when asked what he would do after winning the prize said that he would continue to wake up everyday and do exactly the same thing that he had done for the last thirty years of his career. A steady post-Nobel stream of papers from Kornberg’s lab is a testament to his statement.

Others embrace different interests with newfound enthusiasm; this year for instance, Richard Ernst talked about his interest in Tibetan art and Buddhist philosophy, Walter Kohn is going to talk about wind and solar energy, and Harold Kroto is going to talk about chemistry and society. And yet the Nobel Prize puts a special burden on those who win it since it means that their views will now be taken more seriously than before. As Ernst once quipped, “After I won a Nobel Prize I suddenly turned into an omniscient sage, whereas formerly I was simply a workaholic”. Nobel prize winners are suddenly catapulted into the position of infallible oracles, expected to hold forth profoundly on everything from poverty to the influence of video games on kids.

The fact that they would suddenly be taken more seriously has its advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that the scientist in question can now find a larger and more sympathetic audience for views outside science that he may have held for a long time. But the disadvantages should also be clear; if we think about it, scientists are usually no more qualified to hold forth on matters unrelated to their field of expertise than most intelligent laymen. Sure, a Nobel laureate is usually endowed with an unusual degree of intelligence and analytical thinking, but so are several other otherwise smart people who have not won a Nobel Prize. Just because his or her views will be taken more seriously now does not mean that they are correct. Thus a Nobel laureate faces a real dilemma; on the one hand the prize provides a platform for him to espouse previously held views with authority, but on the other hand when it comes to views remote from his field of expertise he is, in Feynman’s words, “as dumb as the guy next to him”.

There have been only a handful of people who come to mind, who have actually made significant contributions to very different fields after or before winning a Nobel Prize in a particular field. Linus Pauling successfully campaigned for nuclear disarmament and won a Nobel Peace Prize. Tjalling Koopmans authored a famous theorem in quantum chemistry before doing prize-winning work in economics. And the polymath Herbert Simon received a PhD. in political science, received a Nobel for economics, and then received the Turing prize for his foundational work in artificial intelligence (the Turing prize is computer science’s equivalent of the Nobel). But such stunning diversity of contributions is relatively rare. Most Nobel Prize winners after winning the prize face the dilemma of advancing views unrelated to their field to an enthusiastic public.

To address this dilemma necessitates a change in two viewpoints in my opinion; that of the public and that of the laureate himself or herself. The laureate should understand that he is treading into territory in which he is not as firm as he is in other fields. Thus if possible he should study the new field as rigorously as he studied his own field before making public pronouncements about it. He should realize that with his newfound power comes newfound responsibility to make qualified statements in front of the public (in fact this quality is far more needed in politicians and is often missing). Science Nobel Laureates should especially realize that the hard tools of mathematics and logic which may have worked so wonderfully in their own fields could cause complications if applied to fields in the social sciences. Thus, the use of game theory which has garnered a handful of Nobel prizes is nonetheless constrained in the irrational world of human actors, and while the theoretical framework itself is enormously valuable, much care needs to be taken before interpreting its meaning in the human world. Game theory applied to human behavior is not the same as quantum mechanics applied to the solid state.

But the public should also exercise a responsibility, and in fact this responsibility is actually one which it needs to shoulder at all other times. I think two-time chemistry laureate Linus Pauling delineated this responsibility best in the form of advice; “When an elderly, distinguished scientist talks to you about something, listen to him, but don’t take his word for it. No matter how much hair he has lost, no matter how many prizes he has won, no matter how smart he is, he may be wrong”. In this piece of advice Pauling was encapsulating the most basic and valuable characteristic of scientific discovery, a healthy skepticism that allows you to question everyone and everything, but which simultaneously does not descend into blinkered cynicism.

Ironically, Nobel Prize winners in science have won their prizes and made discoveries precisely by exemplifying such skepticism. It would only be fair that the public, you and me, adopt the same attitude toward them when they tell us about something. Together we should share the burden of an amalgamation of the most unfailing skepticism and an accompanying open mind that allows all of us, Nobel Laureate or not, to wonder at the world.

 » Ashutosh Jogalekar studied chemistry and is currently a postdoctoral fellow. i-c0e68e378b7f2835c50e2ebef6c3288f-Ashutosh_45.jpg