The art and science of guessing a Nobel Prize

By Karl Ritter

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Oct. 5 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

STOCKHOLM — Guessing who will win a Nobel Prize is a bit like forecasting the stock market: Experts don't seem to do it any better than laymen.

So if you hear professors and pundits predicting the "God particle" will be the theme of the physics prize next week, or that an American writer — finally — is due for the literature award, check their track record.

"My top candidate has never won, and it's the fourth year I do it now," admitted Norwegian peace researcher Kristian Harpviken, one of the most prominent voices in the annual guessing game for the Nobel Peace Prize.

A week ahead of that announcement, the Irish online betting agency Paddy Power gave the lowest odds Friday to retired American scholar Gene Sharp, Afghan women's rights activist Sima Samar and Tunisian blogger Lina Ben Mhenni. All have been among Harpviken's top picks in recent years.

Harpviken, who heads the PRIO peace institute in Oslo, admits his speculation is just that — speculation — based on current events, previous prizes and personal preference.

"I think guessing is important in that it brings attention to what the Nobel Peace Prize should be about," he said. "I would be very hesitant to speculate on a certain candidate who is absolutely undeserving."

The secretive prize committees rarely drop any hints and Harpviken doesn't have any inside information. Virtually none of the Nobel guess-makers do — but that doesn't stop them from trying.

The peace and literature prizes generate the strongest buzz, and are typically less difficult to predict than the awards for chemistry, physics, medicine and economics.

The six award committees will announce one prize a day, starting with medicine on Monday and ending with the economics award on Oct. 15. The Nobel Foundation this year lowered the prize money 20 percent to 8 million Swedish kronor ($1.2 million), citing turmoil on financial markets. All prizes will be handed out on Dec. 10, the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel's death in 1896.

It would have been easier to guess the winners if the Nobel committees had stuck to the will of the Swedish industrialist, who wanted the annual awards to reflect the greatest achievements "during the preceding year." Instead, the Nobel statutes were changed so that committees can reward discoveries made decades ago, to make sure they have stood the test of time.

"I think Alfred would have been OK with that," said Per Carlson, chairman of the physics prize committee.

Handing out a prize too soon increases the risk of jurors failing to identify the right scientists behind a discovery, Carlson said.

That happened in 1974, when the Nobel Prize in physics went to British radio astronomers Sir Martin Ryle and Antony Hewish. The latter was cited for the discovery of pulsars — rotating neutron stars — though it later became clear that one of his graduate students deserved the credit.

The Nobel time lag could hurt the chances of the most talked-about scientific breakthrough this year: the identification of the Higgs boson, a subatomic particle also referred to as the "God particle."

Though British scientist Peter Higgs predicted the existence of the particle in the 1960s, it was only in July this year that scientists at an atom-smasher outside Geneva claimed to have identified it.

Whether Higgs was even nominated is unclear — the deadline was in February and nominations are not revealed for 50 years.

Secrecy is paramount to the Nobel committees. Literature jurors have been known to use code words when discussing Nobel candidates and using fake book covers when reading their work.

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