Nobel Prize or not

by Eszter Hargittai on January 31, 2022

Today is the last day to submit nominations for the 2022 Nobel Prizes. My father, an expert on the Prize, wrote some reflections on some prizes not received last year.. and more generally about the politics of the Prize and also how smaller countries (Hungary in this case) can think about supporting their scientists. This piece was only published in Hungarian at first, but I thought a broader audience would benefit from it so below is the translation.

From the Hungarian literary weekly, Élet és Irodalom (Life and Literature),
Volume 66, Issue No 4 in 2022, January 28

by István Hargittai

2021 was a special year. Two Hungarians did not receive (deserved) Nobel Prizes. The only other year like this was 1994, when two Hungarians did receive (deserved) Nobel Prizes, George Olah, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and John Harsányi, the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics. The two non-winners in 2021, Katalin Karikó and Zoltán Hajós, are two different cases both with valuable lessons.

Throughout my six decades as a researcher, and even since the age of 11, I have been interested in the nature of scientific discovery, which has led me to follow the work of Nobel laureates and scientists of the caliber of Nobel laureates. There was a ten-year period in my life when I recorded conversations with such scientists, which, together with my wife and our son, were published in six hefty volumes by a prestigious London publisher. These interviews went far beyond my own field, chemistry, and the conversations meant a second college education for me. For twenty-five years I have been invited annually to be a nominator for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. I wrote a successful book on the Nobel Prize. I am saying all this to increase the reader’s confidence in what follows.

Many people were expecting Katalin Karikó to win the Nobel Prize for her achievements in the development of the vaccine against the COVID-19. As the date for the announcement of the Nobel Prizes approached in early October 2021, the various prize-giving bodies were practically in a race to honor her. For any prize, it enhances its prestige if its awardee later becomes a Nobel laureate, while awarding the same prize after the Nobel Prize is no longer so elegant. When it turned out that Karikó was not among the 2021 Nobel laureates, there was great disappointment. There were important reasons though why she was not awarded the Nobel Prize in 2021, and there is every reason to expect that she will receive it in 2022, or very soon after, in the category of physiology or medicine (medicice, in short) or of chemistry.

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