Nobel Prize process too abstruse?

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It’s 3 a.m. and the phone rings. It’s neither Obama nor McCain (nor Clinton, for that matter) who answers; rather, it’s a small, selective group of geniuses who arise from their slumber and are informed that they’ve won a Nobel Prize.

After 10 months of secretive debates and voting processes, the Nobel Prize winners in medicine, physics, chemistry, literature, economics, and peace have been announced.

This year’s achievements include a prize in medicine for the discovery of human papillomaviruses, a prize in chemistry for the discovery of the protein that makes jellyfish glow, and a prize in literature for being “an explorer in humanity.” While these accomplishments are all dandy, cutting-edge, and inspirational, I’m intrigued by the incredibly secretive process of the Nobel committee. Why does it take 10 long months to determine a given year’s winners? While it’s easy to hypothesize that these wizened men and women prolong the process so that they can enjoy sitting in a Swedish ski resort eating Swedish meatballs for an extended period of time, I had to find out for sure.

The long process is indeed as complicated as I thought. For prizes in chemistry, economics, and physics, a committee is formed out of The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and for the other fields, committees are formed out of institutions with equally pretentious names. These committees, formed in January each year, nominate thousands of candidates, which makes me wonder: Might someone throw in Lindsay Lohan’s name just for kicks?

Forms are then sent out to about 3000 selected individuals for their personal nominations. These forms are sent to respected persons like former Nobel laureates, members of international organizations, distinguished professors, and governments of states.

The committee never releases the names of the nominees to the public. In fact, the process is so secret that nomination records are sealed for 50 years. These names are sent to experts in each respective field, who vote. In all, this is serious business. Very serious business.

Now aware of the odds of becoming a Nobel Prize awardee, I wondered about the probability of knowing someone who would go on to win a Nobel Prize. You voted for your “most likely to succeed” and “Miss Congeniality” at your high school prom, but you sure didn’t vote for “most likely to survive round after round of intellectual Survivor, end up the most distinguished leader in your field in a year, and be prone to eating Swedish fish — and Swedish Fish® — at the most illustrious awards ceremony in academia.”

In the end, as abstruse and mysterious the process of determining Nobel Prize winners is, we can all admire the achievements of mankind collectively. And we can sleep through the nights in early October without the inconvenience of someone waking us up at 3 a.m. to tell us that we are the most eminent pioneers in our field in the world. For the rest of us, it’s a small luxury.