Each year on December 10, royal blue carpet is spread across the stage of the Stockholm Concert Hall. Carpeted risers with blue arm chairs are set in two wings. The risers are filled with men dressed in natty penguin style: white tie, white waistcoat and black tails. There are a smattering of women in designer dresses and full-length gowns.
Stage left, gold embossed chairs are filled with the Swedish royal family, medals clinking, sashes sashaying and tiaras glittering. The King sits slightly ahead of the lesser nobility, facing a row of red arm chairs filled with the new Nobel laureates, the creative stars of our time.
Upstage, at dead center, is a bust of Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite and eponym of the prizes. There, center stage, midway between the King and the laureates is a bright white circle around a solitary letter “N.”
This circle becomes center court during the ceremony, a hypothetical 50 yard line. The King summons each laureate to the circle in turn, there’s a quick grip and grin, the King slips the proclamation to the laureate and retreats. The laureate stands alone in the center circle; he, or sometimes she, bows to the applause of the 1800 fans in the cheap seats.
It’s not a big circle. It’s perfect for one person. Two people can shake hands. Three can fit with toes on the outer ring. Three plus the King of Sweden?
So, you can understand why the Nobel prizes for Physics, Chemistry, Physiology, and Economics are usually awarded to only one person. In fact, the Swedish Academy of Sciences has a rule: no more than three people can be honored for one discovery. Why only one person?
Can there be any reason besides the white circle at the Nobel ceremony?
Because it takes more than three people to make a scientific discovery these days. Scientists are no longer isolated in their labs: collaboration is the norm. Scientists collaborate across oceans. Communication is instant. The chance of a lone scientist appearing with insights that revolutionize the world is as likely as a knight on a white horse arriving to mow your yard with a toy bubble mower.
For example, who should stand in the Nobel circle to be honored for CRISPR?
CRISPR, a biological gene editing procedure, is the latest revolution in our understanding of genetics. CRISPR stands for “clustered regularly interspersed palindromic repeats,” which sounds like the plot summary of a Marx Brothers movie. CRISPR was first identified and named in 1993 by a scientist on the coast of Spain who was curious about a unicellular creature in the salt water marshes.
He thought it was interesting, but did not know its potential.
In the next 20 years, dozens of scientists participated in studies, research, and dialogue. The scientific motivations were varied. The first scientist was curious. In France, the scientists worked with the military to understand the DNA footprint of chemical weapons. Another group studied bacteria in yogurt.
In 2013, CRISPR was successfully used to edit the genes of mammals, raising the near possibility of editing human genes.
How many people contributed to the discovery of CRISPR?
In those twenty years, research was conducted in 12 cities across 9 countries. There were at least 12 lead scientists who made significant contributions. Each lead scientist worked with an institutional team, generating scientific reports with anywhere from 2 to 5 or more co-authors. Collaborations crossed national boundaries. If you include lead scientists, co-authors and co-workers, the total number of collaborators easily rises above hundred.
Whom of the 12 or even the hundred should be invited to stand in the Nobel circle to be honored by the King of Sweden?
Sorry, there’s only room for three inside the circle. Apparently, four scientists and one, lone King do not make for a good group hug.
Kings may work alone. But, science has changed from the days of lone heroes.
Charles Darwin worked alone. His colleagues were other wealthy gentlemen who personally outfitted laboratories and chased bugs, rocks and plants around the countryside. One man could contribute to the body of 19th century knowledge. The 18th century Erasmus Darwin, Charles’ grandfather, was cited as the last man to know everything.
In the 1920s, scientific articles began to be attributed to more than one author. In the 1950s, Watson and Crick co-authored the article on the double-helix shape of DNA, giving short shrift to Rosalind Franklin. Since the 1980s, scientific articles with one author have been rare.
A 2001 paper on the sequencing of the human genome had 160 authors even though over a thousand people worked to decode the human genome. Hundreds of scientists worked in Los Alamos, New Mexico on the Manhattan Project.
Today scientific research requires multiple scientists because of the scale of projects and the specialization of knowledge. Any significant discovery develops from the work and insight of many people. The practice of science is collaboration.
Yet, we still believe in the myth of the lone hero. It’s not just the Nobel Prize Committee and the news media. We want to anoint an individual as the hero who rode in on his horse and cleaned up Dodge. We want a champion like David slaying Goliath. We love the tough guy, private eye—Phillip Marlow. Or the genteel Sherlock Holmes. In each case, only one man can solve the crime, save the world and be back in time for a martini shaken not stirred.
The narrative of the lone hero fascinates us so much that we often impose that story line even when we know it’s not true. The monument to the thousands of missing soldiers in Washington DC is called “The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.” Is it human instinct to insist on the singularity of one character in every story?
Perhaps, it is the need to value our own lives. Receiving a Nobel Prize gives one person’s life meaning through a prize. And, however distant from our lives, also gives some validation to us. If one person can achieve this scientific glory, then I can also achieve something. Like mow the lawn.
The Nobel Prize doesn’t reflect how scientists work today. It operates under a 19th century delusion that knowledge can be embodied in one person, that each scientific challenge will have its David. The Nobel Prize should expand the number of prize winners. Or it should stop giving science prizes and honor individual effort in other fields. Like single-handedly mowing the lawn.
Either way, they have got to make that circle on stage bigger.