Category Archives: Nobel

Sydney Brenner – Iconoclastic Nobel Laureate

Source: NYTimes, Mar 2000

In a career of unquenchable creativity, he has always kept moving, searching for new and different problems to tackle, founding a new field as soon as the old one seemed stale.

A ceaseless flow of ideas, some successful, some less so, is one of Dr. Brenner’s traits. Another is his gift of spellbinding listeners with his latest enthusiasm. He speaks with distinctive English diction and in perfectly constructed sentences that often end with a joke.

”Sydney Brenner is probably the cleverest and most articulate of the founding fathers,” said Dr. Norton Zinder of Rockefeller University, referring to the creators of modern biology. ”He is the most enjoyable company. He overflows with ideas, some of which are occasionally even useful.”

Related Resources:

Wikiquote, date indeterminate

  • A lot of the things that have been accomplished in science have been accomplished on the basis of ignorance … in the sense that you import into the science people from outside. Because once you have an established science, it has got its high priests — the guys who know everything that will work or won’t work. And they don’t want to be bothered. So you have to have a challenge. And the great thing is that young people are ignorant, and we should catch them before they turn into the priesthood. So I think that science should have a much more daring approach.
    Sydney Interview on the Genbank 25th Anniversary

2014 interview in The King’s Review

  • Even God wouldn’t get a grant today because somebody on the committee would say, oh those were very interesting experiments (creating the universe), but they’ve never been repeated. And then someone else would say, yes and he did it a long time ago, what’s he done recently? And a third would say, to top it all, he published it all in an un-refereed journal (The Bible).
  • The way to succeed is to get born at the right time and in the right place. If you can do that then you are bound to succeed. You have to be receptive and have some talent as well.
  • To have seen the development of a subject, which was looked upon with disdain by the establishment from the very start, actually become the basis of our whole approach to biology today. That is something that was worth living for.
  • Cambridge is still unique in that you can get a PhD in a field in which you have no undergraduate training. So I think that structure in Cambridge really needs to be retained, although I see so often that rules are being invented all the time. In America you’ve got to have credits from a large number of courses before you can do a PhD. That’s very good for training a very good average scientific work professional.  But that training doesn’t allow people the kind of room to expand their own creativity. But expanding your own creativity doesn’t suit everybody. For the exceptional students, the ones who can and probably will make a mark, they will still need institutions free from regulation. 

Learning Without Questioning –Why Asians do not win Nobel prizes

Source: James Thompson blog, Apr 2014

Asians (Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese) are supposed to have higher IQs (about 105 on average) than North Europeans (100), while sciences have been developed overwhelmingly by Europeans and their offshoots. Why Asians are lacking in scientific success might relate to two factors:

1. Low curiosity, which is expressed by lower Openness to experience (-.59 SD) as shown in various cross-cultural personality comparisons.

2.  Collectivism, which is captured by various individualism-collectivism indices such as the Hofstede individualism index (IDV), or Hofstede and Triandis individualism index (about -2 SD). The genetic underpinnings for these traits, such as DRD4, 5HTTLPR, and OPRM1 have also become increasingly apparent.

To integrate these psychological traits, a “q” factor is constructed by factor analysis on measures of Openness and Collectivism, which are then correlated with variables measuring academic achievements and also student assessments. It is found that IQ scores coupled with “q” factor scores neatly predict racial scientific achievements and also world-wide student assessments.  

Google DOC presentation: 

Larry Summers on Uncles Ken Arrow & Paul Samuelson

Source: Larry Summers website, Feb 2017

My mother’s brother, the Nobel economist Kenneth Arrow, died this week at the age of 95. He was a dear man and a hero to me and many others. No one else I have ever known so embodied the scholarly life well lived.

I remember like yesterday the moment when Kenneth won the Nobel Prize in 1972. Paul Samuelson—another Nobel economist and, as it happens, also my uncle—hosted a party in his honor, to which I, then a sophomore at MIT, was invited. It was a festive if slightly nerdy occasion.

As the night wore on, Paul and Kenneth were standing in a corner discussing various theorems in mathematical economics. People started leaving. Paul’s wife was looking impatient. Kenneth’s wife, my aunt Selma, put her coat on, buttoned it and started pacing at the door. Kenneth raised something known as the maximum principle and the writings of the Russian mathematician Pontryagin. Paul began a story about the great British mathematical economist and philosopher Frank Ramsey. My ride depended on this conversation ending, so I watched alertly without understanding a word.

But I did understand this: There were two people in the room who had won Nobel Prizes. They were the two people who, after everyone else was exhausted and heading home, talked on and on into the evening about the subject they loved. I learned that night about my uncles—about their passion for ideas and about the importance and excitement of what scholars do.

Paul Samuelson (1970 Nobel Laureate – economics)

Kenneth Arrow (Nobel Laureate 1972 – Economics)


Simpsons (in 2010) predicted this year’s (2016) Nobel Economics Laureate

Source: Hollywood Reporter, Oct 2016

Millhouse picked Holmstrom

2016 Physics Nobel Prize uses Topology

The Nobel Prize explanation uses breads (e.g. bagel, pretzel) to explain topology

Related Resource: CBC/Canada, Oct 2016

It cited the three for “theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter.”

Topology is a branch of mathematics that describes properties of objects.

While most people are familiar with objects in three dimensions, the Nobel laureates analyzed materials so thin they have only two dimensions, or even one.

For example, Kosterlitz and Thouless showed that, against expectations, two-dimensional materials could conduct electricity without any loss to resistance. That property is called superconductivity.

Kosterlitz said he was in his 20s at the time and that his “complete ignorance” was an advantage in challenging the established science.

“I didn’t have any preconceived ideas,” he said. “I was young and stupid enough to take it on.”

Their analysis relied on topology, which is the mathematical study of properties that don’t change when objects are distorted. A doughnut and a coffee cup are equivalent topologically because they each have exactly one hole. In topology, properties change only in whole steps; you can’t have half a hole.

Cambridge University website, Oct 2016

Prof Kosterlitz heard the news of his win in an underground car park in Helsinki, Finland, where he is currently a visiting professor at Aalto University. Answering a call from Adam Smith, a journalist working for the Nobel Foundation, his first words were: “Jesus. That’s incredible. That’s amazing.”

Later he told the the Associated Press news agency that he was “young and stupid” when he took part in the research that earned him and two colleagues the prestigious award. “It was a piece of work that I did as a very ignorant post-doc. Complete ignorance was actually an advantage because I didn’t have any preconceived ideas. I was young and stupid enough to take it on.  “I’m a little bit dazzled. I’m still trying to take it in.”


Nobel Prizes: Average Time from Discovery to Award is Increasing

Source: Physics Today, May 2014

After 1985 about 15% of physics, 18% of chemistry, and 9% of medicine prizes were awarded within 10 years of the corresponding discoveries. By contrast, before 1940 about 61% of physics, 48% of chemistry, and 45% of medicine prizes were awarded within 10 years of the corresponding discoveries.

What’s more, after 1985 about 60% of physics, 52% of chemistry, and 49% of medicine prizes were awarded following a post-discovery delay of more than 20 years. By contrast, before 1940 only about 11% of physics, 15% of chemistry, and 24% of medicine prizes were awarded after a delay of more than 20 years.

In all fields, the frequency of the prize being awarded more than 20 years after discovery is increasing. The rate of increase in the frequency of receiving the award after 20 or more years is fastest for physics and slowest for medicine.

Stay Eternally Optimistic

Source: Asian Scientist, Jan 2016

Using the analogy of Lego bricks, Negishi described his vision for organic synthesis—he wanted to synthesize complex chemical compounds from basic starting materials in a fuss-free manner, such as how one can build virtually anything from Lego bricks.

… the importance of optimism in scientific research. “This is how I eventually got the Nobel Prize, with eternal optimism. Never get discouraged. Keep working,” he said.