The Nobel Prize can be as controversial as it is prestigious. Very often, many scientists are left out of the spotlight despite their hard work in a particular field. Richard Feynman, the winner of the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics, once said that the concept of this prize is deceptive. He said he doesn’t like the idea that someone in the Swedish Academy decides if the work is noble enough to receive a prize. The prize is the pleasure of finding things. However, the Nobel Prize is still coveted, and winning it is a dream come true.
Nobel Prize is not awarded just for formulating a theory. The theory must be verified experimentally. This is why Einstein never won the Nobel Prize for relativity.
Here are the stories of a few scientists who contributed significantly to our understanding of the world, but unfortunately never won top honors in Sweden.
1. Satyendra Nath Bose:
Accomplishment: Foundation of Bose-Einstein Statistics
S.N. Bose was an Indian Physicist from Calcutta. A self-taught scholar and a polymath, he had a wide range of interests in varied fields including physics, mathematics, chemistry, biology, mineralogy, philosophy, arts, literature, and music. He served on many research and development committees in sovereign India.
S.N. Bose was nominated by K. Banerji (1956), D.S. Kothari (1959), S.N. Bagchi (1962), and A.K. Dutta (1962) for the Nobel Prize in Physics, for his contribution to Bose-Einstein statistics and the unified field theory. For instance, Kedareswar Banerjee, head of the Physics Department, University of Allahabad, in a letter of 12 January 1956 wrote to the Nobel Committee as follows:
“(1). He (Bose) made very outstanding contributions to Physics by developing the statistics known after his name as Bose statistics. In recent years these statistics are found to be of profound importance in the classifications of fundamental particles and have contributed immensely to the development of nuclear physics. (2). During the period from 1953 to date, he has made a number of highly interesting contributions of far-reaching consequences on the subject of Einstein’s Unitary Field Theory.” Bose’s work was evaluated by an expert of the Nobel Committee, Oskar Klein, who did not see his work worthy of a Nobel Prize.
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2. Dmitri Mendeleev
Accomplishment: The Periodic Table of Elements
Mendeleev was a Russian Chemist and inventor, well knows for his periodic table. He was the first one to observe that the chemical properties of elements repeat periodically after certain atomic numbers. Based on this, Mendeleev devised the modern periodic table and also left spaces for unknown elements that were discovered later. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1906 but died in 1907 without that honor.
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3. Annie Jump Cannon
Accomplishment: Classifying The Stars
Ever wondered what’s the classification scheme of trillions and trillions of stars in the Universe? Well, that came from a deaf woman, an American astronomer, Annie Jump Cannon. She changed the face of astrophysics and brought stellar astrophysics on a firmer theoretical platform.
Cannon was hired by Edward Pickering, along with other women (collectively referred to as “Pickering’s Harem”) to work at the Harvard Observatory mapping and classifying every star in the sky. Every woman had a different idea. Cannon negotiated a compromise: she started by examining the bright southern hemisphere stars to which she applied her own system of classification. She studied the spectrum of every star and classified them into 7 categories: O, B, A, F, G, K, and M type stars.
Cannon manually classified more stars in a lifetime than anyone else, with a total of around 350,000 stars. She discovered 300 variable stars, five novas, and one spectroscopic binary, creating a bibliography that included about 200,000 references. She discovered her first star in 1898, though she was not able to confirm it until 1905. When she first started cataloging the stars, she was able to classify 1,000 stars in three years, but by 1913, she was able to work on 200 stars an hour. Cannon could classify three stars a minute just by looking at their spectral patterns. Her work was highly accurate.
Though her contributions were not recognized during her forty-year astronomy career, her work lives on in the mnemonic device “Oh Be A Fine Girl, Kiss Me!” which helps astronomy students remember star types in order of decreasing temperature.
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4. Meghnad Saha:
Accomplishment: Saha’s Ionisation Equation
Meghnad Saha (6 October 1893 – 16 February 1956) was an Indian astrophysicist best known for his development of the Saha ionization equation, used to describe chemical and physical conditions in stars. Saha was the first scientist to relate a star’s spectrum to its temperature, developing thermal ionization equations that have been foundational in the fields of astrophysics and astrochemistry. We discussed this equation in detail in the 11th article of the Basics of Astrophysics series.
Saha was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Physics for 1930 by Debendra Mohan Bose and Sisir Kumar Mitra. The Nobel Committee evaluated Saha’s work. It was seen as a useful application, but not a “discovery.” Thus he was not awarded the Prize. Saha was nominated again for the Prize in 1937 and 1940 by Arthur Compton; and in 1939, 1951, and 1955 by Mitra. The Committee held to its previous decision
5. Gilbert Newton Lewis:
Accomplishment: Understanding How Chemical Bonding Works
Lewis was an American chemist whose contributions to chemistry in the 1900s include discovering the covalent bond (where atoms share electron pairs), and explaining the nature of acids and bases as substances that accept or give away a pair of electrons, respectively. He also introduced the “Lewis dot structure,” a way of representing chemical bonds and unbonded electrons in atoms and molecules. But though he was nominated 35 times, Lewis’s criticism of his colleagues and hostile relationships with his contemporaries kept him from winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
6. Chien Shiung Wu
Accomplishment: Parity Violation In Weak Decay
Also known as The First Lady of Physics and the Queen of Nuclear Research, Chien Wu was a Chinese-American physicist. Among physicists, the saying went like this: “If the experiment was done by Wu, it must be correct.” Once, Enrico Fermi had some issues with one of his experiments, and even he was advised to consult Wu regarding this.
Back then, when particle physics was in its cradle, it was believed that the fundamental laws of physics do not distinguish between left and right handedness. This is the famous “parity law” of physics. According to this law, physical systems or objects that are mirror images of each other should behave in an identical way.
However, Lee and Yang had something else to say. They theorized that parity conservation does not apply to the weak force and must be violated in beta decay. But they needed someone to prove them true. And, this is when they approached the queen of experiments, Chien Shiung Wu.
Using cobalt-60 nuclei, Wu successfully showed that parity is indeed violated in the weak decay. Though the fact that parity is violated in weak decay does not sound that exciting, but back then, it spread like a wildfire. Compare it to today’s hypothetical news, “An experiment confirmed particles moving faster than the speed of light.” This sounds quite exciting because a major principle of a well-established theory or the so-called ‘law of nature’ has been broken by something new. Similarly, parity conservation was a well established and its violation was a very important milestone in physics.
Lee and Yang were later awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1954 to disprove the Conservation of parity. But sadly, Wu’s efforts in proving their theory right went unacknowledged.
She was excluded from the well deserved Nobel, as were many other female scientists during that time. Wu was well aware of gender-based injustice and at an MIT symposium in October of 1964, she stated “I wonder whether the tiny atoms and nuclei, or the mathematical symbols, or the DNA molecules have any preference for either masculine or feminine treatment.” You can read the full article on Chien Wu here.
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7. Carl Richard Woese
Accomplishment: Reshaping the tree of life
Woese was a molecular biologist who studied microbiology and evolution. In 1977, he published a paper that described how to use RNA from the ribosome, a cellular organelle, to identify and classify microbes. This technique, called molecular phylogeny, eventually revolutionized the study of both microbiology and evolution.
Woese’s first analysis using molecular phylogeny led to the discovery of the Archaea, a previously-unheard of the third domain of life on Earth. Before Woese’s discovery, life was classified into Five Kingdoms stemming from two major branches: prokaryotes, containing bacteria, and eukaryotes, comprising animals, plants, fungi, and protists. The only difference between these branches was the presence (eukaryotes) or absence (prokaryotes) of a membrane-bound cell nucleus.
Microorganisms in Archaea do not have a nucleus but have their own characteristic membranes, enzymes, and ribosomes. Most Archaea are extremophiles, residing in environments that most organisms would find intolerable: hot springs, volcanic vents, or extremely salty places. Yet despite the fact that Woese literally reshaped the tree of life, he never received a Nobel for his pivotal work.
8. Edwin Hubble
Accomplishment: Hubble’s law and the expanding universe
Hubble’s work on galaxies is noteworthy. In 1921, Hubble made a significant observation. He saw that farther a galaxy in deep space, faster it is receding away from us. This law came to be known as Hubble’s law.
The law, however, was first derived by G.Lemaitre, who was a priest. Hence Hubble’s law is also known by the name Hubble-Lemaitre law. The importance of this law lies in the fact that it was one of the first proofs of the expanding universe. Now it is strong evidence in the favor of the Big Bang model.
The fact that the universe is much more than just Milky Way was brought to light by Hubble and Curtis. Prior to them, the galaxies such as Andromeda and Triangulum were thought to be ‘nebulae’ in our own galaxy. However, their work showed that they are, in fact, independent galaxies just like our Milky Way. Hubble’s findings fundamentally changed the scientific view of the universe. Supporters state that Hubble’s discovery of nebulae outside of our galaxy helped pave the way for future astronomers. Hubble also developed a system for classifying galaxies, known as the Hubble’s tuning fork diagram.
Hubble did not win the Nobel Prize because back then, Astronomy was not considered as a branch of Physics.