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7 Geniuses and 1 Entire Science That Never Won the Nobel

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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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Courtesy Murdoch University
Australian Scientists Discover First New Species of Sunfish in 125 Years
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Courtesy Murdoch University

Scientists have pinpointed a whole new species of the largest bony fish in the world, the massive sunfish, as we learned from Smithsonian magazine. It's the first new species of sunfish proposed in more than 125 years.

As the researchers report in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, the genetic differences between the newly named hoodwinker sunfish (Mola tecta) and its other sunfish brethren was confirmed by data on 27 different samples of the species collected over the course of three years. Since sunfish are so massive—the biggest can weigh as much as 5000 pounds—they pose a challenge to preserve and store, even for museums with large research collections. Lead author Marianne Nyegaard of Murdoch University in Australia traveled thousands of miles to find and collected genetic data on sunfish stranded on beaches. At one point, she was asked if she would be bringing her own crane to collect one.

Nyegaard also went back through scientific literature dating back to the 1500s, sorting through descriptions of sea monsters and mermen to see if any of the documentation sounded like observations of the hoodwinker. "We retraced the steps of early naturalists and taxonomists to understand how such a large fish could have evaded discovery all this time," she said in a press statement. "Overall, we felt science had been repeatedly tricked by this cheeky species, which is why we named it the 'hoodwinker.'"

Japanese researchers first detected genetic differences between previously known sunfish and a new, unknown species 10 years ago, and this confirms the existence of a whole different type from species like the Mola mola or Mola ramsayi.

Mola tecta looks a little different from other sunfish, with a more slender body. As it grows, it doesn't develop the protruding snout or bumps that other sunfish exhibit. Similarly to the others, though, it can reach a length of 8 feet or more. 

Based on the stomach contents of some of the specimens studied, the hoodwinker likely feeds on salps, a jellyfish-like creature that it probably chomps on (yes, sunfish have teeth) during deep dives. The species has been found near New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and southern Chile.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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Gregory H. Revera, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
Study Suggests There's Water Beneath the Moon's Surface
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Gregory H. Revera, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Astronauts may not need to go far to find water outside Earth. As CNN reports, Brown University scientists Ralph E. Milliken and Shuai Li suspect there are significant amounts of water churning within the Moon’s interior.

Their findings, published in the journal Nature Geoscience, lean on the discovery of glass beads encased in the Moon’s volcanic rock deposits. As recently as 100 million years ago, the Earth’s moon was a hotbed of volcanic activity. Evidence of that volatile time can still be found in the ancient ash and volcanic rock that’s scattered across the surface.

Using satellite imagery, the researchers identified tiny water droplets preserved inside glass beads that formed in the volcanic deposits. While water makes up a small fraction of each bead, its presence suggests there’s significantly more of it making up the Moon’s mantle.

Milliken and Li aren't the first scientists to notice water in lunar rocks. In 2008, volcanic materials collected from the Moon during the Apollo missions of 1971 and 1972 were revealed to contain the same water-flecked glass beads that the Brown scientists made the basis of their recent study. They took their research further by analyzing images captured across the face of the Moon and quickly saw the Apollo rocks represented a larger trend. "The distribution of these water-rich deposits is the key thing," Milliken said in a press statement. "They're spread across the surface, which tells us that the water found in the Apollo samples isn't a one-off. Lunar pyroclastics seem to be universally water-rich, which suggests the same may be true of the mantle."

The study challenges what we know about the Moon's formation, which scientists think occurred when a planet-sized object slammed into the Earth 4.5 billion years ago. "The growing evidence for water inside the Moon suggests that water did somehow survive, or that it was brought in shortly after the impact by asteroids or comets before the Moon had completely solidified," Li said. "The exact origin of water in the lunar interior is still a big question."

The findings also hold exciting possibilities for the future of space travel. NASA scientists have already considered turning the Moon into a water station for astronauts on their way to Mars. If water on the celestial body is really as abundant as the evidence may suggest, figuring out how to access that resource will definitely be on NASA's agenda.

[h/t CNN]


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