Thursday, October 14, 2004

Alfred Nobel and Women

I very much doubt that Nobel ever worried very much whether his prizes would go to women or not. In general, they have not. But this year women won the Peace Prize, the Literature Price and a shared Prize in Medicine. This brings the total number of female Nobel Prize winners to thirty-two. A ten percent increase in one year! Do we hear mutters abour reverse discrimination? But it's very easy to raise a small number by ten percent, of course. For example, adding one to ten would do it. On the other hand, adding three women to the very small percentage that women constitute of the total number of Nobel Prize winners (around five percent of the total) isn't going to raise that relative proportion very much. Such are the wonders of mathematics.

The Nobel Prizes are selected largely on the basis of peer recommendations, and this can handicap women's chances in fields where the old boy network is live and kicking. Joan Robinson, for example, should have gotten the Economics Prize, but she wasn't in high favor among her peers for reasons that had a lot more to do with politics than economics. I once read a book which argued that the women who have won the prizes in sciences were almost totally in brand new fields of research where the old boy network didn't exist yet.

In any case, this year's women Nobelists are Linda B. Buck in Medicine:
American researchers Richard Axel, MD, and Linda B. Buck, PhD, won the 2004 Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine on Oct. 4 for their work on the sense of smell.
The researchers discovered a large gene family of about 1,000 different genes that give rise to an equivalent number of olfactory receptor types. Their effort clarifies how the olfactory system works.
Dr. Axel is a professor of biochemistry and molecular biophysics at Columbia University and an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University in New York. Dr. Buck is a member of the Basic Sciences Division at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

Wangari Maathai in Peace:

Wangari Maathai, a 63-year-old Kenyan environmentalist, has won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. She rose to international fame for campaigns against government-backed forest clearances in Kenya in the late 1980s and 1990s.
Here are some facts on the first woman from Africa to be honoured with the Nobel Peace Prize.
* Wangari Maathai was born in Nyeri, central Kenya in 1940. She is an academic and has taught zoology at Nairobi University.
* She founded the Green Belt Movement, mainly with women members, which has gone on to plant some 30 million trees around Africa in a campaign to slow deforestation and erosion.
* As well as protecting the existing environment, her strategy is to strengthen the basis for ecologically sustainable development.
* In 1992 riot police clubbed her and three other women unconscious in central Nairobi during a demonstration. She has been teargassed, threatened with death by anonymous callers, and once thrown into jail overnight for leading protests.
* Maathai went to court numerous times to block forest clearances by the former government of President Daniel arap Moi. He lost power in 2002 elections in which Maathai won a parliamentary seat for the victorious opposition.
* Maathai was made an assistant environment minister but says forest clearances continue and has threatened to quit the government.

and Elfriede Jelinek in Literature:

Austrian novelist and playwright Elfriede Jelinek, whose works feature themes of feminist struggle between men and women, was 'in despair' after winning the Nobel Prize in literature today.

The Swedish Academy cited her "musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that with extraordinary linguistic zeal reveal the absurdity of society's clich├ęs and their subjugating power".

Jelinek said in Vienna that she felt "more despair than peace" about winning the prize.

"It doesn't suit me as a person to be put on public display," she said. "I feel threatened by it. I hope it doesn't cost me too much. I hope I can enjoy the prize money, because one can live carefree with it.

The last two have been controversial, Maathai for receiving the Peace Prize for what some regard as unrelated pursuits of environmental protection and women's rights in Africa, though one could well argue that the roots of peace might be found in the respect for trees and women. Jelinek is a political writer and the Austrian right-wing dislikes her work. She's also a feminist writer, and this makes some others dislike her work.

But I could really identify with her reaction on hearing that she received the Prize. I think that she'd be an interesting person to meet.