UCL has 29 Nobel Laureates but could there have been more? Martina Aghopian takes a look at some of the most controversial Nobel Prize awards
The Nobel Prize was first established in 1901 after Alfred Nobel left the majority of his estate as a fund for the prizes. Ever since, Nobel Prizes have been awarded each year for notable contributions in the fields of Literature, Peace, Physiology or Medicine, Chemistry and Physics, with Economics being added from 1963 onwards. Over the course of over 100 years of history, they have been awarded to many worthy candidates and also a fair few unworthy ones, as there have been several individuals who have been overlooked when recognition should have come their way. These scandals are infamous in the scientific community – some even being dramatic enough to become plays.
The Double Helix
One of the most famous controversies was the discovery of DNA’s double helix structure. James Watson, Francis Crick (who studied his undergraduate degree in physics at UCL), and Maurice Wilkins were awarded the Physiology or Medicine Prize in 1962. However, Rosalind Franklin, who was vital in the discovery, was not named as she had tragically died four years prior, due to ovarian cancer. She was only 37. It was her images of the DNA molecule, obtained using X-Ray scattering, that demonstrated the double helical nature of the molecule. She was a colleague of Wilkins’ at King’s College London and they often disagreed over their research. It was Wilkins who showed Watson these images without Franklin’s permission. It was only after Watson had viewed the images, that the correct DNA structure was finally modelled, but they were Franklin’s images. This tragic tale has been dramatized as a play, “Photograph 51”, starring Nicole Kidman as Franklin.
The No-Bell Prize
Space offers many crazy and wonderful objects to observe; it’s not every day that you discover bursts of radiation occurring, in the same part of the sky, every 1.33 seconds. However, that’s exactly what Jocelyn Bell discovered while slaving over up to 96 feet of data per night for her thesis. Her supervisor, Anthony Hewish, initially dismissed her meticulous observations as man-made anomalies. In fact, because the frequency of the radiation detected was so regular, some astronomers initially thought they were due to alien civilisations. However, these “anomalies” were in fact pulsars: spinning neutron stars that emit regular pulses of radiation. Whilst they were sure it was actually a natural phenomenon, Bell and Hewish named the object observed LGM-1 (“little green men” – 1). It was Bell’s persistence, however, that stopped Hewish dismissing the data and it was her effort that led to the discovery. This effort didn’t prevent her from being outrageously ignored in the 1974 prize for Physics. Instead, her supervisor shared the prize with Ryle. Some refer to this as the No-Bell Nobel Prize.
Fritz Haber won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1918. The Haber process is the process by which ammonia is manufactured in large quantities from hydrogen and nitrogen at high temperatures and pressures, in the presence of an iron catalyst. It’s this process which allows mass production of fertilisers – vital for agriculture. While his process has led to the feeding of our ever increasing and demanding global population, his other work leaves an unsavoury taste. During World War I, he was heavily involved in debilitating warfare development. It was his expertise that led to the production of ammonia-based explosives. He is also considered to be the father of chemical warfare, as he developed chlorine gas, that led to approximately 5000 Allied fatalities.
Even Cancer Has a Profit
In 2008 the Nobel Prize for Medicine was awarded to Harald zur Hausen for the discovery that the HPV virus causes cervical cancer. You may remember that it was around this time that everyone got the anti-cervical cancer jab, a direct result of this discovery. The discovery that HPV causes cervical cancer was overshadowed by news that AstraZeneca, a pharmaceutical company profiting from HPV vaccines, had links to two senior members on the Nobel Prize committee board. AstraZeneca had also recently begun sponsoring the Nobel Web and Media. This seemed like zur Hausen got the prize through influence from AstraZeneca. Despite these suspicions being investigated by an anti-corruption unit, no charges were brought.
The pursuit of knowledge has led to many great discoveries in science. The word science in fact comes from the Latin word “scire”, meaning “to know”. These great discoveries are not, however, immune from being tainted by human imperfections: cases of sexism and ignorance of ethical responsibilities have, and will undoubtedly continue to lead to many controversies, The Nobel prizes however will continue to serve their purpose as rewards for great discoveries, and hopefully, with continued censure from the public, will become increasingly less stooped in controversy.
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