Want to win a Nobel Prize? Live long and prosper
By Michael Perry
SYDNEY (Reuters) – Psst! Want to win a Nobel Prize?
Live long, don’t smoke or drink too much alcohol, eat a
balanced diet and take holidays, because it may take 50 years
for your discovery to be recognized by the Nobel committee.
Also don’t tell too many people about your idea or it may
be stolen, and write good English because your discovery needs
to be a memorable story if it’s to be deemed worthy of a Nobel.
So says Australian Nobel prize-winning scientist Peter
Doherty in his new book “The Beginner’s Guide to Winning the
Doherty won the 1996 Nobel Prize for Physiology and
Medicine, along with Swiss colleague Rolf Zinkernagel, for
discovering the nature of cellular immune defense.
His book coincides with Australia’s latest Nobel success
after scientists Barry Marshall and Robin Warren won for their
1982 discovery that a bacterium, rather than stress, caused
stomach ulcers and inflammation.
Doherty’s autobiography is predominantly the tale of a
scientist’s life but its final chapter — “How to Win a Nobel”
– sets out his ideas about the dos and don’ts of a Nobel life.
“So you want to win a Nobel Prize: to become famous,
powerful and maybe even very wealthy? If that’s your ambition I
can’t help you,” he writes.
“There is no instruction manual or course that can guide
you to a Nobel Prize and, numerically speaking, most of us have
more chance of winning an Olympic gold medal.”
However, don’t despair. Doherty does have suggestions on
how budding scientists can give themselves a long shot at a
“Try to solve major problems and make really big
discoveries” might sound obvious, but Doherty says people
intelligent enough to identify a major problem at Nobel level
are rare, to the point they are “probably alien life forms.”
“Discovery is different. Nobody can decide to discover
something, but there are ways of making a discovery and
results,” writes Doherty. “Accept nothing at face value and get
in the habit of thinking unconventionally. Work hard, work
smart and, with a bit of luck, serendipity will play its part.”
EAT AND DRINK MODERATELY
Australians Marshall and Warren are good examples of
Doherty’s advice that prospective Nobel winners need to be
patient and long-lived. They won their prize for medicine more
than 20 years after making their discovery.
“Good habits start early: eat and drink moderately, take
vacations, don’t smoke or over-use recreational drugs (alcohol
included), take regular exercise, avoid extreme sports, and
seek professional help for suicidal thoughts,” Doherty says.
And don’t be a dilettante. “Bright people who hop around
from one topic to another often achieve very little,” he
You will also need a good education. Doherty recommends
growing up in an intellectual and supportive family in the
United States, Europe, Japan, Canada or Australia. But he adds:
“Sometimes the idiosyncratic outsider will rise to the top.”
Got a mental block? The big idea just won’t come? Then get
a pencil and paper and doodle or get physical.
“Human beings think in both words and pictures.
Illuminating ideas come at odd times, in the shower, for
instance, or on the top of a mountain,” writes Doherty
He cites Ilya Mechnikov, who made his 1908 Nobel Medicine
Prize discovery poking starfish larvae on the beach and
watching inflammatory cells congregate, and Kary Mullis, who
came upon his 1993 Nobel Chemistry idea driving alone at night.
Once you’ve made your big discovery, guard it closely.
“An inadvertent comment in someone’s e-mail could provide
the necessary clue for a competitor,” warns Doherty.
You’ll also need to be able to write about your discovery
in an entertaining manner.
“Science is about telling good, readable, memorable
stories. It isn’t necessary to be a Shakespeare or a Michael
Ondaatje, but anyone who wants to be recognized as a top
scientist must be able to write clear, concise English,”
And finally, Doherty says: “Have fun, behave like a