Nobel Fever: Place Your Bets

Who'll be tapped for a trip to Stockholm this year?

Science would be much more popular if you could bet on it. (I mean, what would the NCAA basketball tournament be without betting on the brackets? How many of us would care about Gonzaga or UNLV—sorry, Bulldogs and Rebels fans—otherwise?) So until we can get Las Vegas to make book on the mass of the Higgs boson, Thomson Reuters is offering the next best thing: voting on the winners of this year's Nobel Prizes in science, which will be announced on Oct. 5 (medicine), Oct. 6 (physics), Oct. 7 (chemistry), and Oct. 12 (economics).

Thomson Reuters, whose ISI Web of Knowledge offers databases of, among other things, the scientists whose research has had the greatest impact on their field, has come up with its own predictions.  They're based on how influential scientists have been, as measured by how often their work is cited by others. Since 2002, 15 of these "Citation Laureates" have gone on to win Nobel Prizes. "We choose our Citation Laureates by assessing citation counts and the number of high-impact papers they have produced while identifying discoveries or themes that may be considered worthy of recognition by the Nobel Committee," said David Pendlebury of Thomson Reuters.

The envelopes, please:

In medicine, Pendlebury's method spits out some fascinating names. Jack Szostak of Harvard is a pioneer in synthetic biology—basically, creating life in a test tube. For my money, he'll have to wait until he actually succeeds before he gets called to Stockholm, but if he's honored this year it will be a recognition of how far toward that godlike goal he has already come.

Elizabeth Blackburn of UC San Francisco would be a safer choice: she has made crucial discoveries about telomeres, the caps at the ends of chromosomes that are involved in aging as well as cancer. It would be hard to honor Blackburn without also including Carol Greider of Johns Hopkins, who has also made seminal discoveries about telomeres. Greider is still in her 40s; to gauge her accomplishments, consider that the average age of a first-time NIH grantee is about 43.

Pendlebury rounds out his medicine list with cell biologist James Rothman of Yale. Rothman figured out how cells secrete the proteins they make and move those proteins around within the cell (isn't the Golgi apparatus everyone's favorite organelle?), but that work was done so long ago you have to suspect that if the mandarins at the Karolinska Institute (who choose the medicine Nobel) were going to honor Rothman, they would have done so already. That also goes for Randy Schekman of UC Berkeley, another pioneer in cellular transport whose trip to Stockholm is overdue. If you can get someone to take your bet, let me mention that, as I write, Blackburn, Greider, and Szostak are leading in the online poll Thomson Reuters is running, with 45 percent of the vote. But don't count out Fred (Rusty) Gage of the Salk Institute: he discovered that the adult human brain continues to make new neurons well into old age, a process called neurogenesis. That 1998 discovery overturned decades of neuro-dogma. He's not on the Thomson Reuters list this year but is a sentimental favorite, with 13 percent of the online votes. Choosing him would be a recognition of the revolution taking place in our understanding of the brain.

In physics, Pendlebury likes Yakir Aharonov, an emeritus professor at Tel Aviv University. Aharonov is long overdue. Back in 1959 he and the late David Bohm proposed what is now known as the Aharonov-Bohm effect, which demonstrates the spooky principle of nonlocality. This phenomenon of the quantum world basically allows an action here to affect an entity there—where here and there can be separated by the entire diameter of the known universe. Under the original terms of Nobel's will, laureates were to be chosen based on work from the previous year, but that requirement has long gone by the wayside; it is long past time for Aharonov to be recognized, and doing so would go a long way to completing the recognition due the second generation of quantum mechanics. If that happens, look for Michael Berry of the University of Bristol to share the physics award for extending the Aharonov-Bohm work.

Online voters, however, give the physics edge to Peter Zoller of the University of Innsbruck, a pioneer in quantum optics and quantum information: he's leading Aharonov-Berry by 30 percent to 19 percent as I write. He'd be a safe choice, given the technological applications emerging from quantum information theory, such as a quantum computer, but to my mind not as creative a choice as Aharonov.

No disrespect to chemistry, but for my money it's the economics prize that really bears watching this year. Several of the contenders identified by Thomson Reuters have done cutting-edge work at the frontiers of neuroscience; honoring them would be an important recognition of the emerging field of behavioral economics. The crowd favorites with 25 percent of the online votes are Ernst Fehr of the University of Zurich and Matthew Rabin of UC Berkeley, two of the leading lights in this arena. Their work has demystified everything from the effect of sin taxes and the hot-hand fallacy to the evolution of in-group favoritism (preferring people like yourself) and the origins and neural basis of altruistic punishment, in which you punish someone who cheats or otherwise breaks social norms but at some cost or risk to yourself. If they share 10 million Swedish kronor ($1.4 million), it will be an important recognition that economic science is about more than options pricing.

But I admit to a soft spot for William Nordhaus of Yale, currently winning 18 percent of the online vote in economics. His seminal work on the economics of environmental protection and environmental loss has played a key role in assessments of how to address climate change, as has the work of Martin Weitzman of Harvard. Honoring them at the same time (Dec. 10) that the nations of the world are negotiating a climate-change treaty in Copenhagen—and, by all predictions, failing miserably—would be interesting indeed.

As they used to say in Chicago, vote early and often, at Who says science can't be as exciting—even lucrative?—as the Final Four?