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Conrad Black

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Nobel Hits and Misses

Posted: 10/16/2013 6:44 pm

It is always interesting to see who receives Nobel Prizes. The award this year of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Alice Munro is inspiring in some respects. She is a lovely writer and it is a recognition of Canadian letters certainly, but also of Canada, that her stories about ordinary people in ordinary Ontario towns, can attract such recognition. It was certainly time that Canada was so honoured. Iceland, Guatemala, and many smaller countries have received Nobel Prizes for Literature; I don't begrudge those recipients, and am not familiar with the work of all of them, but it was inexcusable that Canada was so long overlooked. I once inquired of my late and always lamented friend Mordecai Richler, why he had not received a Nobel Prize for Literature, and there were other Canadians who were clearly eligible. Mordecai claimed that the nomination procedure was so elaborate, no friend of his could be bothered with it, and he couldn't blame them.

There is even a slight political aspect to this. Though it is becoming increasingly more difficult to do it, it is part of the mythology of the Quebec separatist movement to claim that Quebec is retarded by Canada, that it is a distinct, vibrant people and that Canada is just a mediocre excrescence of the Anglo-Americans (and all but the most rabid Quebec separatists acknowledge that the British and Americans are distinguished nationalities). Had this award gone to a French-Canadian writer, and there are some who are of that calibre, all Canadians would be happy, but if, as is not impossible, that writer were a foaming-at-the-mouth advocate of Quebec's secession from Canada, it would have led to a lot of annoying cultural narcissism on the part of the sovereigntists. The thought of the unutterably tiresome premier, Pauline Marois, claiming some political legitimization in such an event is too nauseating to bear thinking about.

Less satisfactory is the Norwegian Nobel Committee's award of the Peace Prize to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. (When Alfred Nobel bequeathed the prizes, Norway was part of Sweden and so the two countries have committees awarding different prizes.) Dozens of times, the Nobel Committee has awarded the Peace Prize to individuals and organizations because they espoused good causes. By one criterion, this is appropriate, but by another, it can be misleading, as it may convey unwarranted confidence to democratic public opinion that the goal espoused by the Peace Prize recipient is actually being achieved. Three times refugee organizations and three times the International Red Cross have won the Nobel Peace Prize, as has the Institute for International Law. By the criterion of seeking admirable goals, they were doubtless deserving, but to the extent that the awards implied that they had assured a future less troubled by the scourges they were combatting, this was not the case. The same was true for many individuals, including the benign but ineffectual (in terms of promoting peace) Frank Kellogg and Aristide Briand (who "banned" war in the twenties), and such willful purveyors of violence and terror as Le Duc Tho of North Vietnam and Yasser Arafat of the Palestine Liberation Organization. By contrast, Norman Borlaug, the 1970 recipient, did greatly expand the world's food supply and was responsible for immense permanent benefit to all mankind by his development of more productive strains of wheat.

This year's recipient may be a more well-chosen Peace Prize laureate than the Intergovernmental Agency for Climate Change, which has made a great many unsubstantiated claims and has sown as much confusion and misplaced alarm as wisdom on this vast subject, but it may be closer to the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is trying to combat the spread of nuclear weapons, but has been quite thoroughly unsuccessful. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is doubtless well-intentioned, but it has absolutely no method to achieve its ends. In the current controversy, over Syrian chemical weapons, recently employed by the beleaguered president of Syria Basher Assad to kill 1,400 of his own people, its ability to do anything useful depends on the flimsy possibility of anything useful coming of the voluntary surrender of chemical weapons by Syria to Russia. There is no reason to believe that the OPCW will have any ability to verify whether such a handover is complete and accompanied by an end of Syrian production of such weapons. It might be advisable for the Norwegian Nobel Committee to specify whether it is awarding the Prize for genuine achievements of designated goals of peace, or for strenuous effort in such a cause with no implication of whether the recipient's efforts will actually be fruitful.

At least in the area of economics there is good news. The recipients, led by Professor Robert Shiller, who foretold the 2008 economic crisis, are excellent choices, doubly so because they prevailed over Richard Posner, who sometimes made sensible legal decisions about the costs and consequences of regulation many years ago, but has for decades been a querulous and erratic appellate judge in Chicago. He is a megalomaniac who has been drinking his own bathwater for years and if he were awarded a Nobel Prize, it would bring the entire institution to mockery and degradation.

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  • Marie Curie, née Sklodowska — Physics 1903, Chemistry 1911

    Marie Curie, née Sklodowska (1867-1934) became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize when she was awarded the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics along with her husband Pierre Curie and Antoine Henri Becquerel "for their discoveries concerning nuclear shell structure." Curie became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in Chemistry, the first woman to win an unshared Nobel Prize in the sciences and the first woman to win two Nobel Prizes — an achievement that no woman has yet to duplicate — when she was awarded the 1911 Nobel Prize for Chemistry "in recognition of her services to the advancement of chemistry by the discovery of the elements of radium and polonium, by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element."

  • Iréne Joliot-Curie — Chemistry 1935

    Iréne Joliot-Curie (1897-1956) was awarded the 1935 Nobel Prize in Chemistry along with her husband Frédéric Joliot, "in recognition of their synthesis of new radioactive elements." Joliot-Curie was the daughter of two-time Nobel Prize laureate Marie Curie née Sklodowska and Nobel Prize laureate Pierre Curie.

  • Gerty Cori, née Radnitz — Physiology or Medicine 1947

    Gerty Cori, née Radnitz was awarded one half of the 1947 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine along with her husband Carl Ferdinand Cori "for their discovery of the course of the catalytic conversion of glycogen." The other half of the prize went to Bernando Alberto Houssay "for his discovery of the part played by the hormone of the anterior pituitary lobe in the metabolism of sugar."

  • Maria Goeppert Mayer - Physics 1963

    Maria Goeppert Mayer (1906-1972) shared half of the 1963 Nobel Prize in Physics with J. Hans D. Jensen, "for their discoveries concerning nuclear shell structure." Eugene Paul Wigner received the other half of the prize "for his contributions to the theory of the atomic nucleus and the elementary particles, particularly through the discovery and application of fundamental symmetry principles."

  • Dorothy Hodgkin — Chemistry 1964

    Dorothy Hodgkin (1910-1994) was awarded the 1964 Nobel Prize in Chemistry"for her determinations by X-ray techniques of the structures of important biochemical substances."

  • Rosalyn Yalow — Physiology or Medicine 1977

    Rosalyn Yalow (1921-2011) was awarded one half of the 1977 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine "for the development of radioimmunoassays of peptide hormones." Andrew Schally and Roger Guillemin split the other half of the prize "for their discoveries concerning the peptide hormone production of the brain."

  • Barbara McClintock — Physiology or Medicine 1977

    Barbara McClintock (b.1902) was awarded the 1977 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine "for her discovery of mobile genetic elements." McClintock is the only woman to win an unshared Nobel Prize in the field of Physiology or Medicine.

  • Rita Levi-Montalcini — Physiology or Medicine 1986

    Rita Levi-Montalcini (1909-2012) was awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine along with Stanley Cohen "for their discoveries of growth factors."

  • Gertrude Elion — Physiology or Medicine 1988

    Gertrude Elion (1918-1999) was awarded the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine along with Sir James Black and George Hitchings "for their discoveries of important principles for drug treatment."

  • Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard — Physiology or Medicine 1995

    Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard (b.1942) was awarded the 1995 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine along with Edward Lewis and Eric Wieschaus "for their discoveries concerning the genetic control of early embryonic development."

  • Linda Buck — Physiology or Medicine 2004

    Linda Buck (b. 1947) was awarded the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine along with Richard Axel "for their discoveries of odorant receptors and the organization of the olfactory system."

  • Françoise Barre-Sinoussi — Physiology or Medicine 2008

    Françoise Barre-Sinoussi was awarded half of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine along with Luc Montagnier "for their discovery of human immunodeficiency virus." Harald zur Hausen won the other half of the prize "for his discovery of human papilloma viruses causing cervical cancer."

  • Elizabeth Blackburn — Physiology or Medicine 2009

    Elizabeth Blackburn (b.1948) was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine along with Carol Greider and Jack Szostak "for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase." The 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was the first Noble Prize in the sciences awarded to more than one woman. The year 2009 was also the first time more than one woman was awarded a Nobel Prize in the sciences -- Blackburn shared the Physiology or Medicine prize with Carol Greider, Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, and Ada Yonath won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

  • Carol Greider — Physiology or Medicine 2009

    Carol Greider (b.1961) was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine along with Elizabeth Blackburn and Jack Szostak "for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase." The 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was the first Noble Prize in the sciences awarded to more than one woman. The year 2009 was also the first time more than one woman was awarded a Nobel Prize in the sciences -- Greider shared the Physiology or Medicine prize with Elizabeth Blackburn, Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, and Ada Yonath won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

  • Elinor Ostrom — Economic Sciences 2009

    Elinor Ostrom (1933-2012) was awarded one half of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences "for her analysis of economic governance, especially the commons." Oliver Williamson won the other half of the prize "for his analysis of economic governance, especially the boundaries of the firm." The year 2009 was also the first time more than one woman was awarded a Nobel Prize in the sciences. Other female prize winners that year were: Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider for Physiology or Medicine, and Ada Yonath for Chemistry.

  • Ada Yonath — Chemistry 2009

    Ada Yonath (b. 1939) was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry along with Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and Thomas Steitz "for studies of the structure and function of the ribosome." The year 2009 was also the first time more than one woman was awarded a Nobel Prize in the sciences. Other female prize winners that year were: Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider for Physiology or Medicine, and Elinor Ostrom for Economic Sciences.

 
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