7 Geniuses and 1 Entire Science That Never Won the Nobel

Scientists and Intellectuals are supposed to be above petty politics and popularity contests, right? Nope. Here are a few bright bulbs that never got the fancy Nobel gold medallion (or the millions of Swedish krona that go with it). And you thought the Oscars were bad.

1. Joan Robinson, Economics

Great Britain's Joan Robinson may be one of the most exciting figures in the history of "the Dismal Science." An acolyte of the great John Maynard Keynes, her work covered a wide range of economic topics, from neoclassicism to Keynes's general theory to Marxian theory. Not to mention, her notion of imperfect competition still shows up in every Econ 101 class. Add to that the fact that Robinson's greatest work, The Accumulation of Capital, was published way back in 1956 but is still widely used as an economics textbook. So why no Nobel? Some say it's because she's a female, and no female has ever won the Nobel in Economics. Others say that Robinson's work over her career was too eclectic, rather than hyperfocused like that of so many other laureates. Still others claim that she was undesirable as a laureate because of her vocal praise for the Chinese Cultural Revolution, a fairly anti-intellectual enterprise.

2. Dmitri Mendeleev, Chemistry

Why would this guy deserve a Nobel Prize for chemistry? After all, his only achievement was to devise the entire periodic table of elements, the miracle of organization and inference on which all of modern chemistry is based. Mendeleev's table was so good, it even predicted the existence of elements that hadn't yet been discovered. But here's where politics rears its ugly head. In 1906, Mendeleev was selected by the prize committee to win the honor, but the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences stepped in and overturned the decision. Why? The intervention was spearheaded by Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius, who had himself won the prize in 1903 for his theory of electrolytic dissociation. Mendeleev had been an outspoken critic of the theory, and Arrhenius seized the opportunity as the perfect chance to squeeze a few sour grapes.

3. Mahatma Gandhi, Peace

The Susan Lucci of Nobel Peace Prize contenders, Mohandas "Mahatma" (Great-Souled) Gandhi was nominated like crazy: 1937, 1938, 1939, 1947, and 1948.

More after the jump...

He certainly deserved it, as his nonviolent methods helped kick the British out of India and became the model for future Peace Prize laureates like Martin Luther King Jr. Gandhi's final nomination came in 1948, and he was the odds-on favorite to win it that year. However, the "Mahatma" was assassinated just a few days before the deadline. Since the Nobel Prize is never awarded posthumously, the prize for peace went unawarded that year on the grounds that there was "no suitable living candidate." The decision was also motivated by the fact that Gandhi left no heirs or foundations to which his prize money could go.

4. James Joyce and 5. Marcel Proust, Literature

One wrote Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake, almost universally regarded as two of the most brilliant works of the 20th century (in the case of Ulysses, the most brilliant). And the other is, well, Marcel Proust. Proust's towering work, A La Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time, or, sometimes, Remembrance of Things Past) is considered one of the greatest literary achievements ever, combining seven novels and 2,000 characters for a celebration of life, consciousness, and sexuality spanning 3,200 pages. James Joyce's works and stream-of- consciousness style are the basis of countless college courses, doctoral theses, and poetic ruminations. But the writings of Proust and Joyce were probably just too controversial and "out there" for the more conservative Nobel committees of their day. And Nobel's stricture against posthumous awards hasn't exactly helped, especially since the influence of these two artists has continued to grow long after their deaths. Most ironic, Proust and Joyce have been major influences on many writers who went on to win Nobels themselves, like Saul Bellow, Samuel Beckett, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Hermann Hesse. Other literary giants who have gotten the Nobel shaft? Evelyn Waugh, Jorge Luis Borges, Bertold Brecht, Graham Greene, Henry James, Vladimir Nabokov, and Simone de Beauvoir, to name a few.

6. Jules-Henri Poincaré, Physics

Although Poincaré was a mathematician, his genius was too universal to be confined to one category. Sure, he came up with all sorts of mathematical theories with crazy names: algebraic topology, abelian functions, and Diophantine equations. But he was into physics, too. Poincaré laid the foundation for modern chaos theory and even beat Einstein to the punch on certain facets of the theory of special relativity. And one of his math problems, the Poincaré conjecture, even remained unsolved for nearly 100 years! So why was Henri overlooked for the Big One? Due to Alfred Nobel's stipulation that his prizes go to those whose discoveries have been of practical benefit to mankind, the Nobel committees have often been accused of rewarding experimental discoveries over purely theoretical advances. Poincaré's work in physics seems to be a victim of that prejudice.

7. Raymond Damadian, Medicine

Lots of deserving folks have been passed over for the Nobel, but few were as vocal about it as 2003 runner-up Raymond V. Damadian. He was the brain behind the science of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a technique that completely revolutionized the detection and treatment of cancer. But the 2003 Prize for Medicine went to Paul Lauterbur and Peter Mansfield, two scientists who expanded on Damadian's discovery. Enraged at the slight, Damadian ran full-page ads in the New York Times and Washington Post featuring a photo of the Nobel Prize medal upside down and the headline "The Shameful Wrong That Must Be Righted." The ad featured quotes from other scientists backing up Damadian's claim, even a letter of protest to be cut out, signed, and mailed to the Nobel Committee. Some claim Damadian was slighted because his fundamentalist Christian belief in creationism made him anathema to the scientific community. Others say it was because his discovery wasn't really useful in medicine until Lauterbur and Mansfield improved upon it. Either way, 2003 left the poor scientist Nobel-less.

8. Oh, and Anybody in Mathematics

When dynamite inventor (that's not a comment on his abilities; he really did invent dynamite) Alfred Nobel stipulated in his will that his fortune be used to establish a fund to award five annual prizes, he famously left out mathematics. All kinds of theories have popped up to explain the omission, the most salacious of which claim that Nobel hated all mathematicians because his wife was schtupping one on the side. Nope. The most likely reasons for Nobel's ditching math are (1) He simply didn't like math all that much, and (2) Sweden already had a big, fancy prize for mathematics, bestowed by the journal Acta Mathematica. Although math is still a Nobel bridesmaid, a prize for economics was added in 1968, thereby giving the extremely boring sciences their due.

[Ed. note: this list was taken from Forbidden Knowledge]

Previously on mental_floss:

15 Award-Winning Facts About The Nobel Prize
10 Awful Words & The People They're Named For
Ten Crazy Facebook Groups
14 Stories You Might Not Know About Bobby Kennedy
"¢ Quiz: Match The Drug To Its Scary Warning Label

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These Sparrows Have Been Singing the Same Songs for 1500 Years
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Swamp sparrows are creatures of habit—so much so that they’ve been chirping out the same few tunes for more than 1500 years, Science magazine reports.

These findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, resulted from an analysis of the songs of 615 adult male swamp sparrows found in six different areas of the northeastern U.S. Researchers learned that young swamp sparrows pick up these songs from the adults around them and are able to mimic the notes with astounding accuracy.

Here’s what one of their songs sounds like:

“We were able to show that swamp sparrows very rarely make mistakes when they learn their songs, and they don't just learn songs at random; they pick up commoner songs rather than rarer songs,” Robert Lachlan, a biologist at London’s Queen Mary University and the study’s lead author, tells National Geographic.

Put differently, the birds don’t mimic every song their elders crank out. Instead, they memorize the ones they hear most often, and scientists say this form of “conformist bias” was previously thought to be a uniquely human behavior.

Using acoustic analysis software, researchers broke down each individual note of the sparrows’ songs—160 different syllables in total—and discovered that only 2 percent of sparrows deviated from the norm. They then used a statistical method to determine how the songs would have evolved over time. With recordings from 2009 and the 1970s, they were able to estimate that the oldest swamp sparrow songs date back 1537 years on average.

The swamp sparrow’s dedication to accuracy sets the species apart from other songbirds, according to researchers. “Among songbirds, it is clear that some species of birds learn precisely, such as swamp sparrows, while others rarely learn all parts of a demonstrator’s song precisely,” they write.

According to the Audubon Guide to North American Birds, swamp sparrows are similar to other sparrows, like the Lincoln’s sparrow, song sparrow, and chipping sparrow. They’re frequently found in marshes throughout the Northeast and Midwest, as well as much of Canada. They’re known for their piercing call notes and may respond to birders who make loud squeaking sounds in their habitat.

[h/t Science magazine]

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10 Scientific Benefits of Being a Dog Owner
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The bickering between cat people and dog people is ongoing and vicious, but in the end, we're all better off for loving a pet. But if anyone tries to poo-poo your pooch, know that there are some scientific reasons that they're man's best friend.

1. YOU GET SICK LESS OFTEN.

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If cleaning commercials are to be believed, humanity is in the midst of a war against germs—and we shouldn't stop until every single one is dead. In reality, the amount of disinfecting we do is making us sicker; since our bodies are exposed to a less diverse mix of germs, our entire microbiome is messed up. Fortunately, dogs are covered in germs! Having a dog in the house means more diverse bacteria enters the home and gets inside the occupants (one study found "dog-related biodiversity" is especially high on pillowcases). In turn, people with dogs seem to get ill less frequently and less severely than people—especially children—with cats or no pets.

2. YOU'RE MORE RESISTANT TO ALLERGIES.

Child and mother playing with a dog on a bed.
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While dog dander can be a trigger for people with allergies, growing up in a house with a dog makes children less likely to develop allergies over the course of their lives. And the benefits can start during gestation; a 2017 study published in the journal Microbiome found that a bacterial exchange happened between women who lived with pets (largely dogs) during pregnancy and their children, regardless of type of birth or whether the child was breastfed, and even if the pet was not in the home after the birth of the child. Those children tested had two bacteria, Ruminococcus and Oscillospira, that reduce the risk of common allergies, asthma, and obesity, and they were less likely to develop eczema.

3. YOU'LL HAVE BETTER HEART HEALTH.

Woman doing yoga with her dog.
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Everything about owning a dog seems to lend itself to better heart health. Just the act of petting a dog lowers heart rate and blood pressure. A 2017 Chinese study found a link between dog ownership and reduced risk of coronary artery disease, while other studies show pet owners have slightly lower cholesterol and are more likely to survive a heart attack.

4. YOU GET MORE EXERCISE.

Person running in field with a dog.
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While other pets have positive effects on your health as well, dogs have the added benefit of needing to be walked and played with numerous times a day. This means that many dog owners are getting 30 minutes of exercise a day, lowering their risk of cardiovascular disease.

5. YOU'LL BE HAPPIER.

Woman cuddling her dog.
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Dog owners are less likely to suffer from depression than non-pet owners. Even for those people who are clinically depressed, having a pet to take care of can help them out of a depressive episode. Since taking care of a dog requires a routine and forces you to stay at least a little active, dog owners are more likely to interact with others and have an increased sense of well-being while tending to their pet. The interaction with and love received from a dog can also help people stay positive. Even the mere act of looking at your pet increases the amount of oxytocin, the "feel good" chemical, in the brain.

6. YOU HAVE A MORE ACTIVE SOCIAL LIFE.

Large bulldog licking a laughing man.
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Not only does dog ownership indirectly tell others that you're trustworthy, your trusty companion can help facilitate friendships and social networks. A 2015 study published in PLOS One found that dogs can be both the catalyst for sparking new relationships and also the means for keeping social networks thriving. One study even showed that those with dogs also had closer and more supportive relationships with the people in their lives.

7. YOUR DOG MIGHT BE A CANCER DETECTOR.

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Your dog could save your life one day: It seems that our canine friends have the ability to smell cancer in the human body. Stories abound of owners whose dogs kept sniffing or licking a mole or lump on their body so they got it checked out, discovering it was cancerous. The anecdotal evidence has been backed up by scientific studies, and some dogs are now trained to detect cancer.

8. YOU'LL BE LESS STRESSED AT WORK.

Woman working on a computer while petting a dog.
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The benefits of bringing a dog to work are so increasingly obvious that more companies are catching on. Studies show that people who interact with a pet while working have lower stress levels throughout the day, while people who do not bring a pet see their stress levels increase over time. Dogs in the office also lead to people taking more breaks, to play with or walk the dog, which makes them more energized when they return to work. This, in turn, has been shown to lead to much greater productivity and job satisfaction.

9. YOU CAN FIND OUT MORE ABOUT YOUR PERSONALITY.

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The kind of dog you have says a lot about your personality. A study in England found a very clear correlation between people's personalities and what type of dogs they owned; for example, people who owned toy dogs tended to be more intelligent, while owners of utility dogs like Dalmatians and bulldogs were the most conscientious. Other studies have found that dog owners in general are more outgoing and friendly than cat owners.

10. YOUR KIDS WILL BE MORE EMPATHETIC.

A young boy having fun with his dog.
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Though one 2003 study found that there is no link between pet ownership and empathy in a group of children, a 2017 study of 1000 7-12 year olds found that pet attachment of any kind encouraged compassion and positive attitudes toward animals, which promoted better well-being for both the child and the pet. Children with dogs scored the highest for pet attachment, and the study notes that "dogs may help children to regulate their emotions because they can trigger and respond to a child's attachment related behavior." And, of course, only one pet will happily play fetch with a toddler.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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