Better late than never

Ranking topics: Nobel prize winners by country of birth


Albert Einstein doubted the existence of black holes. In 1939 he even tried to prove that the celestial objects—which are so dense that light itself cannot escape their gravitational pull—do not exist in the “real world”. But in 1965, ten years after Einstein’s death, Roger Penrose, a British physicist, wrote a groundbreaking paper that used maths to prove that black holes are a necessary consequence of the theory of relativity. Last week, aged 89, Sir Roger won the Nobel prize for physics for his seminal work. It may seem odd awarding science’s most prestigious prize for a discovery 55 years ago. But the period between when Nobel-worthy discoveries are made, and when they are recognised, much like space-time itself, has curved upwards since the prizes were first handed out in 1901.

A long wait for Nobel recognition is nothing new. Peyton Rous, an American pathologist, was first nominated for the medicine prize in 1926, for his discovery in 1911 that cancer could be transmitted by a virus. He would have to wait until 1966 for the accolade. And some breakthroughs are recognised speedily: this year’s chemistry laureates, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, won for their work on gene-editing, which was as recent as 2012.

But data compiled by researchers at the University of Florence, Aalto University in Finland and the University of Belgrade suggest that this “prize delay” now routinely spans decades. In physics, over the past century the average gap between achievement and award has increased from ten years to more than 30. Fifteen of the longest 20 have come in the past two decades. These include British scientist Peter Higgs (2013) who won 49 years after predicting the existence of the boson that bears his name, and Nambu Yoichiro (2008), a Japanese scientist, who became a laureate 48 years after his work on spontaneous symmetry-breaking. In chemistry, the average delay has roughly doubled in the past 100 years. In medicine, the same trend is evident. This year’s prize went to three scientists involved in identifying the hepatitis C virus in 1989.

There are many theories about why the lag is growing. Increased life expectancy may play a part. Scientific progress may also be slowing, forcing the awards’ committees to look ever further into the past for deserving nominees. Perhaps the most convincing explanation is that Nobel prizes are awarded for discoveries, not unsupported theories, and complex ideas may take longer to prove than they did a century ago. After all, Sir Roger Penrose’s mathematical breakthroughs could not be confirmed empirically without technological innovations developed over decades. Whatever the reason, today’s scientists should hope that the curves start to flatten, or it is likely that their crowning moment of glory will see them with one foot in the grave.

Correction (October 23rd): An earlier version of this article said that a Nobel science prize has never been awarded posthumously. In fact, Ralph Marvin Steinman was given the Nobel prize for medicine on October 3rd 2011, three days after his death. Sorry.

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