Forum: How to win yourself a Nobel prize – Amir Amirani has some tips for aspiring laureates

25 January 1992


Having recently completed the research for a four-part television series on the history of the Nobel prize – and what a rewarding and illuminating experience it was! Here are some trends and pointers for would-be prizewinners I’d like to share.

First, some general guidelines. Plan to be around, for a long time, and for goodness sake don’t die. There are no prizes after death. The call from Stockholm can take a long time to come, unless you invent a super new microscope that can give a close-up of a quark, or discover the cure for AIDS, then no matter how old you are, you won’t have to wait long.

Check to see if you are European, or American. If so, this is a good start. Allow yourself a gentle smile. If not, don’t panic. Buy a plane ticket for Germany, France, Switzerland or Britain, or any flight to the US. Come by boat, and like Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, you may discover something on the boat to win you your prize. Next, check to see if you are a man. If so, allow yourself a big smile. Even share the news with your friends. They won’t be too surprised, but they don’t know what you plan to do with this finding. If not, don’t panic. Well, all right then, panic, but just a little. Then cancel all your social engagements for your foreseeable lifetime, and promise to chain yourself to your desk. Alternatively, scien-tists can do amazing things with hormones and . . . well, anyway.

So you are Western, you are male. Now it gets difficult. Pick a university with a good record of winning Nobels, and heaps of money. Short of that, befriend the bigger foundations. If you are an economist, beat a path to Chicago, but MIT and Yale are good alternatives. Scientists have a slightly wider choice, but could do worse than somewhere in California or somewhere in Boston. If America doesn’t appeal, Switzerland, Germany and Sweden are good bets.

Pick an emerging or established field, read everything, meet all the people in your field (they are the ones who will nominate you), meet the laureates in your field (ditto), befriend a Swede or two. Be nice. If you’ve done all of this, you’re doing well.

Here is the tough part. Now check to see if you have a very open-mind, an unshakeable belief in your ideas, and endless persistence. It can be a little tricky to do this and remain objective at the same time, so seek the help of a close and trusted, yet honest, colleague. There are very important qualities, and if you are convinced you have them, throw a party and invite the King of Sweden.

Next, check if your boss has a generous travel budget. If so, raid it. If not, threaten to leave for Bell Labs, Wellcome, General Electric, IBM or the like, where you will have more money, the chance to travel, and probably your own personal supercomputer. Accept all offers of visiting fellowships/professorships and sabbaticals. Remember, many breakthroughs and useful discussions are had in other people’s laboratories.

By now, you’ll be well into your 40s, and should have published widely, and be frequently cited. Check to see if you have picked up one or other of the indicator prizes, such as the Lasker Prize in medicine, or have become a Fellow of the Royal Society or joined the National Academy of Sciences. If so, this is a very good sign, and you’re on the home straight. If not, don’t panic. This could be just an oversight.

Now you need a little luck, but you need not worry about this. If you remember the old saying: ‘An accident is an accident until it happens to the right person – then it becomes a discovery.’ By now, you should know whether or not you are the right person. If you’re not, go back to the start and see where you went wrong.

All that remains now is that you invent or discover something. For this, I am afraid you need to be very good, no two ways about it. If not, do some more very good research and hope for a lifetime achievement award, for services to your field. Don’t worry about the clause referring to ‘work done in the past year’. Peyton Rous did some good work in 1911 and had to wait 55 years before picking up his prize in 1966.

Don’t be modest. Let it be known you would be happy to receive a prize. In the early days of the Nobel prizes, they wouldn’t give you one if they thought you would refuse it. And it is all right for your friends to lobby on your behalf, as it pays off in the end. Then when they ask if the prize has changed you, reply as Wolfgang Pauli did: ‘No, I was famous already.’ And keep the money. It has many uses, as Einstein found when he used part of his to settle a divorce.

If you’ve successfully made it through the above checklist, and can complete the following sentence in less than 20 words, ‘I would like to win a Nobel prize because. . .’, then there is no reason why, all things being equal, you too should not become a laureate. Good luck.