Speaking of Nobel

The biggest scientific event of the year is undoubtedly the awarding of Nobel Prizes. Three researchers from the Faculty of Natural Sciences met at Ågrenska Villan to discuss the significance of the prize and why there are so few female Nobel Laureates.

It is early morning. Researchers Göran Hilmersson, Johanna Höög and Maria Sundin settle down in armchairs around a coffee table in the library in Ågrenska Villan in Gothenburg. It’s chilly outside, and a pale sun penetrates the windowpanes. Inside the library it is cosy, with books and reference works crowding the shelves along the walls. From the adjacent hallway, a faint murmur of voices can be heard. The candle on the table lights up the room, a fine illustration of the role of knowledge in society now that we are about to discuss the Nobel Prize from different angles.

How important is a Nobel Prize for the scientific community?

“In the world of research, the Nobel Prize is the greatest distinction one can receive,” says Göran Hilmersson, professor and head of the Department of Chemistry and Molecular Biology, whose research focuses on organic chemistry and method development. “It means a great deal for individual researchers and also for the higher education institution. In addition, it means a lot for those who are active in the same field of research as well as for society at large.”

In connection with the Nobel Prize, Göran gets many questions from friends who are not scientists.

“It’s great that the prize comes every year,” he says. “There is actually a chemistry prize, a physics prize and a medicine prize, if we consider the Nobel Prizes that are most relevant to us.”

Maria Sundin, an associate professor of theoretical physics, nods in agreement.
“Yes, even though a lot of money is distributed, it’s mostly about the honour of receiving a Nobel Prize. It is something that carries weight at all universities and among all researchers, a bit like ‘the holy grail’. Moreover, it is a Swedish prize and it reaches out to the schools. Children and young people know that now something is happening that seems extremely important.”

She thinks that almost everyone talks about the prize a little during the Nobel Prize period. “And then we have this great festive occasion with the Nobel Award Ceremony, when the prizes attract attention and visibility.”

This year’s prize in chemistry was in your research field, Johanna. Tell us about it.

“Yes, it was fantastic! I had been waiting for this,” says Johanna Höög, associate senior lecturer at the Department of Chemistry and Molecular Biology. “Two years ago cryo-electron microscopy was named the method of the year by Nature, one of the leading scientific journals. I understood then that there might be something in the offing. These gentlemen who received the prize this year really deserve it,” Johanna says. She is trained as a cell biologist and researcher of cells using cryo-electron microscopy.

One of this year’s Nobel Laureates in chemistry, Jacques Dubochet, worked at the same institute in Heidelberg as Johanna Höög.

“Jacques Dubochet is an extremely pleasant man and his idea is brilliant – that one can study proteins and cells frozen in water. Initially he was a physicist, and he realised that it was possible to freeze water without forming ice crystals. With that insight, he also understood that we might be able to prepare our samples for electron microscopy in that way. Then it took about 40 years until everything started to work. Imagine having that vision and not letting it go,” she adds.

This year no woman received a Nobel Prize. What do you think of that?

“I absolutely believe that it’s not a coincidence,” Johanna says. “There is an effect in science called the ‘Matilda Effect’ – the fact that men choose men. This means that the efforts of women are constantly undervalued. We can see this in all areas of society for that matter. In the world of research, too, women’s discoveries are not valued as highly as those of their male counterparts.”

Göran thinks the difficulty of comparing different research fields can be a factor.
“It’s not as if a woman making a research discovery is in the very same field as a man. Then the situation would be very clear. But men compete in a sense on different tracks, so a judgement has to be made on both the difficulty of the track and what has been accomplished. It’s not exactly the same. Though as you say, Johanna, it’s easier to connect this choice with something else. Take a thing like collaboration. A male researcher with many collaborators receives the highest rating while a woman who collaborates with many others may be regarded by some as lacking in independence.”

Maria wants to see a change soon.
“Before this year’s physics prize, I talked a lot with my colleagues, and there were many weighty female names that came up then as potential candidates. I feel somewhat cautiously hopeful. On the other hand, I’m of a similar opinion to Göran and Johanna, and then I become a bit discouraged by the fact that I was maybe even more hopeful ten years ago. But we’ll have to hope for a reversal in the trend soon.”

Which discoveries have not received a Nobel Prize that should have?

“In my own field, astrophysics, I think that the discovery of dark matter, which is of course based on the scientist Vera Rubin’s discoveries in the 1950s, certainly has been worthy of a Nobel Prize. And then we would have also had an additional female Nobel Laureate,” Maria says with an ironic gleam in her eyes.

American astronomer Vera Rubin studied galaxies. She perceived that movements of the stars could not be explained on the basis of visible light and realized that there must be more matter there.
“It was then called dark matter, and it has come to play a major role in our whole world view, how we look at the universe. Vera Rubin died last year. It’s very sad that she didn’t live to receive a prize,” says Maria.

It can be difficult to draw conclusions about the Nobel Prizes when you don’t know what discoveries the Nobel Committees have had to choose among, Göran adds.
“The Nobel Committees do a wonderful job digging into details and comparing nominations. It would be a little naive to say that they are making mistakes. But what you can say something about is your own field. There I will stick my neck out and say I can’t really identify candidates for a Nobel Prize in my own field right now who have not already received it.”

Does the Nobel Prize have any significance for the general public?
“That probably depends a bit on the underpinnings of the Nobel Prizes. The discoveries must be rooted in something that is important to people,” Maria says.

Göran agrees. “The prizes are often arcane, but I believe it’s important that the Nobel Prizes have exposure and are explained in the media.”

Eagerly, Johanna leans forward in her armchair and says emphatically: “Through the Nobel Prizes, knowledge is celebrated. That is wonderful indeed – that once a year, people think about what has been done of importance and how it will affect our society in the future.”