What Does It Take to Win a Nobel Prize? Four Winners, in Their Own Words

Some answers: Messiness, ignorance and puzzles

The Nobel Prize, named after the repentant creator of dynamite, has been awarded nearly every year since 1901. (Akademie / Alamy)

The Nobel Prize: Just the name evokes a sense of awe, grandeur and heady intellect. So does the sumptuous annual Prize ceremony, which takes place December 10 in Stockholm (the Peace Prize is awarded in Oslo). There, this year’s winners—who won for contributions as diverse as advancing economic contract theory, developing molecular machines and exploring exotic states of matter—will be presented with their diplomas and gold medallions, signaling that they have been written into the annals of human achievement in indelible ink.

Yet while these exalted luminaries have reached the pinnacles of their respective fields and contributed “the greatest benefit to mankind,” they’re also just … people. On November 30, the Embassy of Sweden in Washington, D.C. hosted four of this year's American Nobel Prize winners (sadly, Bob Dylan was not among them) to discuss the accomplishments, failures and lucky breaks that led to their prize-winning breakthroughs. We snagged some one-on-one time with the winners to ask what, in their own words, it takes to nab a Nobel. 

From left to right: Vaughan Turekian (moderator), Oliver Hart (economics) Sir J. Fraser Stoddard (chemistry), J. Michael Kosterlitz (physics), F. Duncan M. Haldane (physics) (Franz Mahr / Embassy of Sweden)

Oliver Hart, who won the prize in Economic Sciences for his contributions to contract theory and particular incomplete contracts.

Let’s address the elephant in the room: the Economics Prize is not exactly a Nobel. Would you say economics is messier than some of the more traditional sciences?

A lot of economic theory is actually not messy. But contracts are messy. I’ve realized that in the last 10 years I’ve actually introduced some behavioral elements in my work, notions of fairness in particular. I came to the conclusion that assuming the parties in a contract are perfectly rational—which is a standard assumption in economics—led to totally unrealistic results. 

Does marriage count as an example of an incomplete contract?

That's a good question. I sometimes talk as if a complete contract is ideal: If only you can specify everything, then it wouldn’t matter who owns what and all that. But actually, that’s probably wrong. If you had a very, very detailed marriage contract, that might actually sour the relationship.

Or even just imagine in your job, if everything was specified and you had no autonomy, you might be bored out of your mind. There is an importance to autonomy. One of the reasons people leave things out of contracts is not only because they can’t put them in, but it might actually be counterproductive to put them in. Marriage would be an example of that.

What’s the most important contract you’ve made in your personal life?

Probably the contract I did on the renovation of my house in 1996, which is described in my book Firms, Contracts and Financial Structures. I actually talk about the difficulties that I had, and some of the failed attempts. But then finally in 1996, we did get a good house renovation. Not that it was perfect—because it turned out that the contractor did some things that we thought were a nice job, but eight or 10 years later things started to go wrong. We tried to find him, actually. He never responded to any inquiries.

I guess I’m not necessarily the best writer of contracts myself.

Sir J. Fraser Stoddart, who won one-third the prize in chemistry for designing ultra-tiny molecular machines that could revolutionize many fields of science and industry.

Do you ever think of yourself as Dr. Frankenstein, sparking “life” into these organic machines?

Not really. I’m a bit more feet on the ground. 

How about a welder in miniature, or a tinkerer with Legos?

When I was starting off it wasn’t Legos, it was things that were two dimensions, it was jigsaw puzzles. And I was absolutely addicted to these. As an only child I had to amuse myself, and so I would make them and pile them up between newspapers. So that’s played a big role in my life.

But where we are today, we’ve got to draw a distinction between molecular machines and a machine that you can put your eyes on, be it a stapler or a car or whatever. They’re very different, and they live in different worlds. So part of the intellectual challenge is to take chemists away from thinking just in terms of Lego or macroscopic machines, and being able to think about them more akin to our biological machinery.

These machines are living in a very hurricane-like world, with a lot of things going on around them. It’s all a juggling act. And it’s a very different thought process than what drives the machines that we see with our eyes.

You’ve said that you see a strong link between the prizes for chemistry and physics.

Huge, yeah.

The link is this concept of topology, which has its roots in mathematics. It was a mathematical concept, and the point is this mathematical concept pervades both mathematics and phsyics and many other things. What I think we’re going to see is a total realignment of the sciences in this century, to the point where they are going to be coming together in a very wonderful kind of way. The outcome of this cross-fertilization will just be absolutely amazing.

J. Michael Kosterlitz and F. Duncan M. Haldane, who won the prize for physics for their work in exploring the unexpected behaviors of exotic states of matter.

When you started exploring these exotic phase changes in 1971, did you have to relearn everything you learned in school about phase changes?

Kosterlitz: Nope. Didn’t know anything about them! I intended to be a high-energy physicist. This was the first problem in condensed matter that I ever worked on.

What is an important quality you had as a researcher that allowed you to solve this puzzle?

Kosterlitz: David Thouless (who won the last third of the Physics Prize) is an extremely smart guy. He could understand the contradictions, and puzzle them out. From my point of view, I couldn’t even see that there was a contradiction. I approached the problem from a standpoint of strong ignorance, so I went ahead and solved it anyways. Didn’t realize it couldn’t be done.

So what you need is not to realize it’s impossible in order to do it?

Kosterlitz: Exactly, yes.

What have you been working on since then?

Kosterlitz: I’ve spent my whole career trying to repeat what we did then, and failing miserably. 

Well, one Nobel’s probably enough, right?

Kosterlitz: Oh, yeah.

How does imagination play a role in the kind of work you do, where some of the applications are almost impossible to predict?

Haldane: What’s turned up a number of times is that the big picture has been more interesting than we imagined before—and it takes imagination to see it. Imagination plays a role in going from some very small specific result to seeing that, actually, this is a new way of looking at the world.

In our field, the way we look at the quantum mechanics of matter has changed completely in many ways since I was a graduate student. One interesting development has been this merger of ideas from people who are working in quantum information with the physics of matter. You begin to see general principles.

So it’s about seeing the big picture?

Haldane: Or getting a new picture.

Editor's note: These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

About Rachel E. Gross
Rachel E. Gross

Rachel is the Science Editor, covering stories behind new discoveries and the debates that shape our understanding of the world. Before coming to Smithsonian, she covered science for Slate, Wired, and The New York Times.

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