The Politics of Excellence: Behind the Nobel Prize in Science 1st Edition

2 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0716731030
ISBN-10: 0716731037
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

This idealistic study underscores the personal, scientific and cultural self-interest behind the selection of the Nobel Prizes in physics and chemistry. Friedman, professor of history at the University of California at San Diego, traces the prize since Alfred Nobel's enigmatic testament became public in 1897. He examines those nominations and awards that fell short of Nobel's vision of the "best" in science, instead rewarding middling achievement. Albert Abraham Michelson, for instance, won the Nobel in 1907 for mastering precision measurement, the specialty of one committee member that year; his attempt to measure Earth's movements within the ether, meanwhile, is widely considered his greater achievement, as it spurred the physics establishment's move away from the ether theory. Today, Friedman argues, the title of Nobel Laureate offers prestige and resources; Nobel's wish that the prize recognize people providing "the greatest benefit to mankind" can be overshadowed by "narrow professional interests, boosterism, and careerist advancement." Friedman seeks to reassert Nobel's vision by revealing malfeasance behind the award. Albert Einstein provides the most well-known example: his 1921 prize was delayed for a year by a provincial, stiff-necked academy that recognized Einstein's law of photoelectric effect, but not relativity theory. Friedman's painstaking research sometimes yields heavy-handed analysis. His outrage at Nobel politics results in an uncompromisingly limited view of progress in science, which, from Galileo onward, has rarely come easily. The Nobel archives are unavailable after 1950, further frustrating the book's scope and forcing the author to sprint through the later history with parting shots and a hasty though well-reasoned appeal for change. With less 20-20 hindsight and greater objectivity, this book would fill a pop-historical void.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

Like most people, this reviewer has often wondered, "Just how are the Nobel prize winners selected?" This book will definitely answer that question. While Friedman (history, Univ. of California, San Diego) has achieved his goal of writing a science history accessible to the general reader, it is not for those wanting a light read. Well written and free of complicated scientific discussion, this book is a comprehensive and scholarly account of the prize's century-old history, complete with several appendixes and 72 pages of notes. Friedman, a noted historian of the physical sciences, does a superior job of placing the committee's decisions in their historical settings. For instance, he explains why Albert Einstein won the prize for his work on the photoelectric effect and not for the theory of relativity. While he does discuss the prizes for chemistry and physics, he does not cover those given for physiology/ medicine, literature, or peace. The author, who had access to the Nobel archives, spent 20 years researching this book, and it shows. Strongly recommended for large public and academic libraries. James Olson, Northeastern Illinois Univ., Chicago
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt & Company; 1 edition (October 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0716731037
  • ISBN-13: 978-0716731030
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.5 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,241,438 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By George Hesselberg on October 17, 2001
Format: Hardcover
This is the 100th anniversary of the Nobel prizes, and it's a wonder it took this long for someone to take a good look at what went on behind the scenes in Stockholm for all these years. Friedman's book dishes dirt but does it with white gloves and a magnifying glass. The footnotes are just as much fun as the book itself. The book answers some of the questions about the wierdness associated with the Nobels. For one: What did they have against Einstein? The conspiratorial answer is here in the chapter - "Einstein Must Never Get a Nobel Prize." For another: Who got the money when they didn't award a prize?
This book is eminently readable from several professional angles. It has delicious Nobel trivia hidden on every page. It explains science so that I can understand most of it, even quantum theory. I wish there were photographs of the winners and the major players, and I wish the list of winners would have included descriptions of what they won for, but those are only slight criticisms.
The story of the intrigue and pettiness behind the Nobels is presented chronologically. Most important to me was that Friedman not only explains what happened - and he deserves extra credit for cheerfully explaining the tedious machinations behind Swedish scholarly politics - but presents the motivation, much of it a surprising pro-German bent, behind the events.
I am acquainted with Prof. Friedman, and only a fellow with a deep sense of professionalism and and an equally sharp sense of humor and irony could have pulled this off.
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful By "rsime" on December 7, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Friedman's dramatic, richly detailed book is essential reading for those wanting to understand the Nobel physics and chemistry decisions in their first fifty years.
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