Why the Nobel prizes need a shakeup

The Nobel prizes are announced this week, with medicine and physics leading the pack. As the week continues, more brilliant scientists will be honing their skills at modesty, incredulity and shock in the event of that all-important phone call from Sweden.

Sorry, that is grossly unfair. Most Nobel prizewinners will have carried out their breakthrough work for many years before they are recognised with the prize, and probably long after they had given up hope of that ultimate accolade – these are not the Oscars, after all, where an actor at least knows that he or she has made it to a shortlist and on the night will be well aware of the cameras focused on the tiniest twitch in facial expression. For the rest of the scientific community around the world, this is also a time to hope that the winner comes from one's own particular area of research, boosting the chances of bathing in reflected glory and gaining valuable research funding.

For whatever accolades are dished out, the hard graft of science continues. I'm often asked whether, now that the Higgs boson has been found, the scientists working at the Large Hadron Collider can pack up and go home. Far from it; these are exciting times in particle physics and there are plenty more unanswered questions that we hope to address. That famous quote by the American theoretical physicist, John Wheeler, is as true today as it has ever been: "As our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance."

Science stories are in the news now more than ever with discoveries and breakthroughs seemingly coming thick and fast, from genetics to brain science to nanotechnology to astronomy. And these are just the headline-grabbing topics. Of course one can argue that scientific progress has been taking place for hundreds of years and it is just that we are so much better now at reporting it. This is true. But one thing has changed: research disciplines previously unconnected are now starting to overlap and merge, with physicists, chemists, biologists, engineers, medics, computer scientists and mathematicians pooling their expertise to attack common problems. One such exciting field that is coming of age is quantum biology – where quantum physicists like me work alongside molecular biologists to attempt to explain a number of baffling phenomena in living cells.

Although many examples can be found in the literature dating back half a century, there is still no widespread acceptance that quantum mechanics, that baffling yet powerful theory of the subatomic world, might play an important role in biological processes. Of course, biology is, at its most basic, chemistry, and chemistry is built on the rules of quantum mechanics in the way atoms and molecules behave and fit together. But biologists have until recently been dismissive of counter-intuitive aspects of the theory and feel it to be unnecessary, preferring their traditional ball-and-stick models of the molecular structures of life. Likewise, physicists have been reluctant to venture into the messy and complex world of the living cell – why should they when they can test their theories far more cleanly in the controlled environment of the physics lab where they at least feel they have a chance of understanding what is going on.

But now, experimental techniques in biology have become so sophisticated that the time is ripe for testing a few ideas familiar to quantum physicists. I'm not talking cats in boxes that are dead and alive at the same time, but a range of phenomena, from the way proteins fold or genes mutate to the way plants harness light in photosynthesis, how our sense of smell works, and even the way some birds seem to navigate using the Earth's magnetic field. All appear to utilise some of the more bizarre features of the quantum world; and it's all very exciting.

So if scientists are shedding their silo mentality and becoming ever more interdisciplinary, isn't it time the Nobel prizes followed suit and better reflected this trend? The committee could introduce new categories and vary them annually. There might be one year when astrobiology, material science and geophysics are picked, another year when they go to nanochemistry, artificial intelligence and quantum biology. Boundaries between the sciences are blurring. Why not just reward the best research, rather than pigeonholing disciplines? After all, it's not a new idea; physicists and biologists have worked together fruitfully in the past. Didn't Crick (a physicist) and Watson (a biologist) do just that?

Jim Al-Khalili is professor of physics, and professor of the public engagement in science, at the University of Surrey.

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