Prize Fight- page 3 | Science | Smithsonian

Prize Fight

Raymond Damadian refuses to take his failure to win a Nobel Prize, for a prototype MRI machine, lying down

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The case that is perhaps most reminiscent of this year’s controversy was the 1923 award to Frederick G. Banting and John J. R. Macleod for their discovery of insulin in 1922. Although Macleod was department head at the University of Toronto where the work was done, he was not even in residence on campus when the seminal experiments were conducted. It was Banting and medical student Charles Best, in collaboration with biochemist James B. Collip, who actually slogged through the science. So strongly did Banting feel about Best’s contribution that he shared half of his Nobel winnings with the young collaborator. Perhaps inspired by Banting’s magnanimity, Macleod split his monetary award with Collip.

No such collegial solution appears on the horizon for this year’s contestants. Indeed, to hear Damadian tell it, he and Lauterbur have been at odds for years; the Nobel decision, Damadian believes, was no mere oversight. He claims that an intense lobbying campaign, conducted by the winners and their supporters, resulted in Damadian’s exclusion.

Hans Jornvall, secretary of the Nobel Assembly, counters that lobbying plays no role in the process. And, truth be told, less sinister explanations for the decision do exist; chief among them is that science is a cumulative, communal process. Research is rarely punctuated by clear-cut breakthroughs or heroic individual feats. The more one scrutinizes scientific progress, the more gradual the process seems and the more arbitrary decisions regarding prizes, such as the Nobel, appear. In order for Damadian’s technology to become clinically useful, it absolutely had to be improved upon by Lauterbur and Mansfield. And in the continuum from basic physics to early prototype to modern medical imaging, it may be that the Nobel Assembly simply felt more comfortable drawing the line beginning at point B rather than point A.

But it is difficult not to at least consider another explanation: that scientists on the assembly or in other positions of influence could not abide Damadian’s staunch support for "creationist science." Damadian is a firm believer in a literal translation of the Bible: he has no doubt that the earth was created by God during a six-day stretch about 6,000 years ago. Damadian has also served as a technical adviser to the Institute for Creation Research, which rejects the standard model of evolution."The non-biblical account would have us believe that all life originated from a single common ancestor—a slime mold—and give or take a billion years, we’re expected to believe that the descendants of this slime mold climbed out of the ocean and stood up and started giving lectures," Damadian says. "Do the math on that. The sheer statistics of that violate any sense of reality."

Asked if he thinks that his beliefs, which take aim at what is arguably the core guiding principle of modern biology, may explain his fate in the Nobel race, Damadian shrugs. "I have no way of knowing," he says. "Nobody has ever raised it. Maybe they’re too polite."

It’s an admirably neutral view, considering all the fire and brimstone that Damadian has loosed upon the Nobel decision. For years, creationist Web sites have touted Damadian as a respectable scientist supporting their cause. It is tempting to speculate that some assembly members might have weighed the additional legitimacy a Nobel imprimatur would have conferred upon groups whose views are so diametrically opposed to so much of modern science.

Whether Damadian’s religious beliefs influenced the Nobel Assembly or not—"Definitely not," Jornvall says—those views clearly dominate Damadian’s own perception of how this debate will end. Indeed, if there is one thing he is more sure of than that he deserves a Nobel Prize, it is that terrible justice will surely be visited upon those who, as he sees it, denied him his proper place in history.

"I’m not their judge," Damadian says of Lauterbur and Mansfield, "but I’m confident there is one. And I don’t think they want to be explaining to that judge—the final judge—how they conspired to exclude the person they know started this."

There is no wrath, it seems, like that of a spurned Nobelist who believes he has both science and religion on his side. Perhaps there’s a Peace Prize awaiting the person who can settle this one.


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