A Nobel calling: Predicting the science Nobel Prizes winners

Early awakenings are seldom more pleasant for scientists than when they are brought about by a telephone call from Stockholm.

Some of the most eminent names in science will tumble out of bed this week with news that they've been awarded a Nobel Prize, the summit of scientific prestige. And not a bad haul of cash besides at 10 million Swedish Kronor. That's a lot of kronor even for the best-funded researcher, about $1.4 million at today's exchange rates. Plus you get a medal and a diploma, a sweet deal all around.

With the Medical Prize up first, starting Monday, the annual guessing game about likely winners occupies spare lab hours everywhere. David Pendlebury, a science historian and analyst with Thompson Reuters, part of the Reuters news empire, last week unveiled likely picks based on a tabulation of citations in research studies.

"Citations are the formalized repayment of intellectual debts," Pendlebury says, with researchers acknowledging in science studies those whose ideas are behind their discoveries in the references they choose to highlight in their papers.

Basically, Nobel success derives from merit, Pendlebury and his colleagues argue, with the prize going to the most influential researchers, ones whose publications attract thousands of citations from later researchers. "Citations give a very clear signal of what the scientific community feels is important," he says.

Well, maybe. Pendlebury acknowledges that factors like the prize's limit to three researchers, and a fondness for spreading recipients among different countries, also seems to play a role in the Nobel. But based on who's crediting who for original ideas, scientists whose work received 99.9% more citations than others over the last two decades, he suggested the following as possible winners this week:

Medicine, Monday, Oct. 6

— Shizuo Akira of Osaka University, Bruce Beutler of The Scripps Research Institute and Jules A. Hoffman French Academy of Sciences for immune system discoveries.

— Victor Ambros of the University of Massachusetts Medical School and Gary Ruvkun of Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital for discovery of microRNA and its role in shutting down genes.

— Rory Collins and Sir Richard Peto of the University of Oxford for development of a meta-analysis of studies that combines trial results to get answers to health questions.

Physics, Tuesday, Oct. 7

— Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov of the University of Manchester for discovery of graphene.

— Vera Rubin of the Carnegie Institution for Science for discovery of dark matter

— Sir Roger Penrose of the University of Oxford and Dan Shechtman of Iowa State University for crystal shape research.

Chemistry, Wednesday, Oct. 8

— Charles Lieber of Harvard for nanowire research.

— Krzysztof Matyjaszewski of Carnegie Mellon University for plastics chemistry

— Roger Tsien of the University of California San Diego for fluorescent markers of cell activities.

Prizes must go for specific discoveries, Pendlebury notes, which hurts the chances of the Renaissance-man (or -woman) types who do a lot of things well. That tends to rule out folks like economist Martin Feldstein of Harvard, noted for sprinkling his discipline with all sorts of ideas throughout his career, or Princeton physicist Freeman Dyson, often considered as the best physicist never to win a Nobel. "It's not a lifetime achievement award," says Pendlebury.

But maybe that could change. The Nobel has a curious history, described by Burton Feldman in The Nobel Prize: A History of Genius, Controversy and Prestige as both "disquieting and encouraging." Prizes have been awarded for lobotomies and malaria injections to treat the mentally ill. They ignored discoverers of the Big Bang, nuclear fission and antibiotics. Einstein's Nobel came about as a result of squalid politicking among researchers, as Walter Isaacson recounted in last year's Einstein: His Life and Universe. And Alfred Nobel, the prize's founder, was a curious character, the misanthropic "dynamite king" of Sweden who shocked his relatives by leaving as a bequest an award "to those persons who shall have contributed most materially to benefit mankind."

So you never know. The prizes do tend to go to the most-cited researchers over time, says Pendlebury. Nobel Prize winners do cite each other heavily, as do the researchers with fewer citations, so there is some indication of quality as opposed to a mere popularity contest going on in science. "The real problem is we never know who these scientific elite are going to be. We need a large population of average researchers while these rare orchids grow up."