Watching the news of this year's Nobel prize winners appearing on Twitter and elsewhere over the past week has been a learning experience for me. The first couple (physiology or medicine and physics) were fine – the reactions were largely excited and congratulatory. But then came chemistry. Even before the announcement that Yonath, Steitz and Ramakrishnan had won for their studies on the structure of the ribosome, the twittosphere was replete with sarcastic wit about the fact that a biological discovery would probably win. And sure enough – the fact that the ribosome is a biological structure seemed more important to many twitterers and bloggers than the achievements of the prizewinners. As Nature put it:
"It is the third time in seven years that the chemistry Nobel has been awarded to crystallographers who have determined the structure and function of a complex biological molecule. "It does seem to be a recurring theme," says Thomas Lane, president of the American Chemical Society. But at its heart, this structural biology is "fundamentally chemistry", adds Jeremy Sanders, head of physical sciences at the University of Cambridge, UK, "even if many chemists had never heard of any of the winners"." A commenter at the Sceptical Chymist blog wrote: "To me, chemistry is the study of atomic and molecular structure and understanding how these structures affect the properties of molecules and molecular assemblies. In this respect, the work of Ramakrishnan, Steitz and Yonath falls right into the heart of what chemists do." Quite.
This was nothing, of course, to the reaction to the announcement that Herta Muller was to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Many in the UK and America, myself included, had never heard of this writer. Rather than by reacting with curiosity and interest in her work, the main intent of twitterers seemed to be to sneer either at her or at the Nobel committee, implying that the award was not deserved in some way. I was glad to read a piece in the Guardian today correctly pointing out that "By awarding the 2009 Nobel prize for literature to Herta Müller, the Swedish Academy is not only honouring a beautiful writer, but also expanding our concept of Europe". (I'll refrain from commenting here about the non-winning, introspective, self-regarding US literature about the collapse of the American Dream, etc;-). ) I was also glad to read that the publishers Serpents Tail and Granta are to reissue two of Muller's books in translation. No doubt, as a result of the Nobel, more will continue.
And even this was a storm in a teacup compared with today's announcement that Obama is to be awarded the Nobel Peace prize. Frankly I'm nauseated by the constant carping nastiness and "jokes" on twitter today, and have "unfollowed" several people as a result – not because of any views one way or the other about the recipient, but because I wish that rather than impulsively and emptily criticising, people might bother to think or find out why the award is given, before jumping in to share their knee-jerk petulance with the world. I was impressed, both by a video interview between a very highly groomed American TV lady and the chair of the Nobel committee in which he explained their rationale for the award (unanimous, across the political spectrum of the committee members from left to right), and with another one of Obama's reaction speech (video embedded at link). There's lots of good in all of this if people care to listen, not least in the mood of consensus building, which is essential if the world is to make anything of the political, economic, social and environmental mess it is currently in.