The Ones Who Got Away

Special to The Times


December 2, 2001

It's no crime to give the Nobel Prize to the wrong person, says Burton Feldman, retired University of Denver English professor and Nobel historian. "It's a private corporation, and they can do whatever they want." But the radiant half-life of this particular accolade's prestige ensures perennial fascination for roll calls of passed-over candidates.


An archive of Nobel omissions could reserve an entire section for women. Sharon Bertsch McGrayne is accustomed to being approached by scientists at parties about the female researchers who have been shut out by the Nobel gatekeepers. "Men will come up, and their adrenaline flows and they're angry," says the author of "Nobel Prize Women in Science."


The book is dedicated to groundbreakers such as Frieda Robscheit-Robbins, whose experiments and papers contributed substantially to work that led to a cure for pernicious anemia and landed George Whipple a prize in 1934.


McGrayne also spotlights Austrian-Jewish researcher Lise Meitner, who, according to legend, figured out nuclear fission one day during the 1930s while cross-country skiing. Nuclear experiments led by Meitner at a Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute in Berlin won Otto Hahn the prize for chemistry in 1944. The 60-year-old Meitner fled Berlin in 1938; she went unmentioned when Hahn received the Nobel and was lionized as a national hero by postwar Germany.


Then there was Jocelyn Bell Burnell, a radio astronomy graduate student at Cambridge University during the 1960s. Analyzing data from a radio telescope in October 1967, Burnell spotted a "bit of scruff" that seemed to appear in the same place in the night sky from one night to the next. Burnell theorized that it was a new kind of astronomical object (an extremely dense neutron star that emits pulses of polarized radiation, later called a pulsar), but her colleagues doubted that the "scruff" came from a star. Burnell, who is now with the physics department at The Open University in England, left Cambridge with her PhD in 1968. Her graduate advisor, Antony Hewish, won the Nobel physics prize in 1974 with Sir Martin Ryle for their "discovery" of . . . the pulsar.


"The Nobel committee is not susceptible to publicists," allows Feldman, author of "The Nobel Prize: A History of Genius, Controversy and Prestige." But while Feldman rates Nobel science picks as "just terrific" overall, he's not at a loss for names of deserving non-winners. For Feldman, one standout omission relates to the Big Bang theory. "They did not honor the guy who created the theory," Feldman says of Ralph Alpher, a graduate student whose 1948 dissertation postulated the now-textbook hypothesis of the universe's origins. In Feldman's view, experiments that won Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson a Nobel in 1978 merely supported the concept that originated decades earlier with Alpher, who is now a physics professor at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y.


Feldman chalks up the omissions of innovators such as Edwin Hubble (who attributed a constant rate of expansion to the universe) and George E. Hale (inventor of the spectroheliograph) to arbitrary restructuring of the physics prize. Thomas Edison's brilliant inventions fell short of extending the laws of physics, Feldman says. Jonas Salk? His polio vaccine emerged from existing science rather than fresh discoveries.


Sure, there are consolation prizes. Hubble's name went onto the famous space telescope posthumously. The giant reflectors on San Diego County's Palomar Observatory were christened for Hale after his death. And in 1982, German physicists created one of the heaviest known elements in the universe, gracing it with the rubric "Meitnerium." But fairly or otherwise, also-rans vie for the history books without help from the Nobel committee. Says Feldman: "They never apologize and they never regret."



Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times