The Nobel Prizes: Place Your Bets

It may not pack quite the excitement as betting on the presidential race, but for science enthusiasts there is nothing like predicting the winners of this year’s Nobel prizes. An excellent cheat sheet is to be found at Thomson Reuters Scientific, which since 1989 has developed a list of likely winners in medicine, chemistry and physics (economics, too, but we’ll focus on the original science prizes).

The list is based on the number of citations a scientist has accumulated (citations are references that a new study makes to earlier studies, sort of a tip of the hat to one’s intellectual forbears) and how many high-impact papers he or she has had (if you publish a lot but no one notices, your impact is low; if you have just a few powerhouse papers, it’s high). It also reflects a sense of which fields are hot, since the Nobel committees often work by first identifying an important scientific breakthrough and then figuring out whom to honor for it. “In choosing our ‘picks’ for the Nobel Prize in 2008 (or thereafter) we looked first at citation counts and at number of high-impact papers, but then also at discoveries or themes that might be considered worthy of special recognition by the Nobel Committee,” explains Thomson Reuters’ David Pendlebury in an online essay.

So who makes the cut this time? You can see the whole lists at the link above, but a few stand out as particularly interesting:

In chemistry, if you think it’s time for the Nobel to honor nanotechnology, then place your bet on Harvard’s Charles Lieber, a leader in the race to turn this science from gee-whizardry into something useful. If you think the chem committee is more impressed with a technique to attach fluorescent probes to proteins within living cells, allowing biologists to study cellular processes live and in living color, then bet on UC San Diego’s Robert Tsien, who pioneered the technique.

In physics, there is no cooler new material than graphene, which is a sheet of carbon atoms a mere one atom thick. Its creation, by Andre Geim of the University of Manchester in Britain, has revolutionized materials science and condensed-matter physics. I confess that I’m rooting for Geim partly because of his sense of whimsy: in 1997 he used a magnetic field to levitate a frog, winning himself an Ig Nobel (a spoof Nobel, from the Annals of Improbable Research) in 2000. But I also have a soft spot for Vera Rubin of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. She discovered dark matter, the mysterious invisible stuff that lurks around and between galaxies and makes up more of the universe’s mass than the matter that does emit electromagnetic radiation (visible, x-ray, radio, whatever). Astronomers haven’t won their fair share of Nobels, it seems to me, despite revolutionizing our understanding of the cosmos.

In physiology/medicine, the handicappers like micro-RNAs. Discovered by Victor Ambros of the University of Massachusetts Medical School and Harvard’s Gary Ruvkun, m-RNAs regulate gene function in a way never before imagined. An even more interesting pick in this category are the epidemiologists who pioneered meta-analysis, the statistical technique in which you pool many studies—on, say, the association between eating meat and developing cancer, or a drug and disease—and analyze them as one. For this achievement, the handicappers like Oxford University’s Richard Peto and Rory Collins. Collins explained the need for meta-analyses this way: “The studies being done were too small to detect the sort of modest but medically worthwhile—humanly worthwhile—differences in mortality or major morbidity that are likely produced by the treatments being tested.”

Since Thomson Scientific started making predictions in 1989, there were only two years—1993 and 1996—when they failed to correctly predict at least one winner, and in some years they nailed two. So get your bets down soon: the Nobel committees will announce the physiology/medicine prize on Oct. 6, physics on Oct. 7 and chemistry on Oct. 8.