We’ve looked at the numbers so you don’t have to
Every year we gaze into our crystal balls to try to predict who will win this year’s Nobel prize. Besides looking at citations or seeking the wisdom of crowds, another method is to look at who has won some of the other prestigious chemistry prizes out there, ones that don’t garner the press attention that the Nobels do. We’ve taken a selection of nine other prizes awarded for excellence in chemistry (the Royal Society’s Copley, Royal and Davy medals, the RSC’s Centenary prize, the Wolf and Kavli prizes, the GDCh’s von Hoffman and Liebig medals and finally the Priestley medal from the ACS) to see what we could discover. We used a cut-off of 1949 – when the Centenary prize was first awarded.
Firstly, how many Nobel laureates have won these other prizes? We found that while lots have, plenty have not received any of the other awards before or after their trip to Stockholm. So perhaps our findings should be taken with a pinch of NaCl…
Narrowing our group down to those that have won at least one of the other prizes, we then looked at whether the prizes came before or after the Nobel (and how many years before or after), to see how predictive they might be.
It looks as though the Centenary is the most ‘predictive’ – it has been awarded ahead of the Nobel prize 27 times, often many years in advance. The Priestley medal, however, has almost always been awarded after a Nobel, in many cases decades later. It’s only if you count Barry Sharpless’s second prize in 2022 that it has been awarded before the Nobel. The Wolf prize is also a good indicator, with many of its laureates going on to win the Nobel, some even in the same year - and it has never been awarded after the Nobel.
It’s worth noting that the Centenary prize is awarded to up to three people each year, not necessarily working in connected fields, while the Priestley medal is given to a single individual and intented to recognise a lifetime’s achievement or service.
So who has won the other prizes, but not yet the Nobel? Here you can see the scientists who have won at least two of the nine non-Nobel prizes and medals (and are still alive, as the rules of the Nobel prize require). It’s no surprise that many of the names are the ones that crop up every year in the run-up to the big announcement. But does the fact that Allen Bard, Gabor Somorjai and Harry Gray have already received the Priestley medal mean they are unlikely to receive the call from Sweden next week? Follow our live coverage on the day to find out.
Let’s hope that the Nobel committee use a more sophisticated method to pick this year’s winners, not least because very few of the names listed above are going to improve the Nobel’s widely discussed problems with diversity.