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Experimental Error: Nobel Gas

CREDIT: Photo by Dan Koestler

I'm not good at meeting celebrities. I don't just mean the time I narrowly missed shaking hands with Judd Hirsch because my girlfriend had to use the bathroom, which still makes me a little angry every time I think about it. I mostly mean that the few times I've met famous people, my brain has locked up and I couldn't make normal conversation.

Case in point: The summer before college, I met then-President Bill Clinton. He said, "Nice to meet you," and I replied with the same. Then he asked where I was going to go to college, and instead of saying "Princeton," I said, "Uh ... I forget." I think I even gave him a look that said, "Come on, help me think of the name of this place. Surely you've at least got a good guess -- you're the president!" And that was the whole encounter.

As much as I'd love to wear the Nobel medal around my neck to a bar to impress the ladies, I know that I'm about as likely to win a Nobel Prize as I am to win the Oscar for best supporting actress in a miniseries.

Which is why, when I learned that I would meet Nobel laureate Elizabeth Blackburn (physiology or medicine, 2009), I had nightmares that she'd ask, "How are you?" and I'd reply, "Balloons."

So I familiarized myself with the work that earned her the Nobel Prize: her co-discovery of telomerase, the enzyme that elongates telomeres within cells. But when we finally met, Dr. Blackburn threw me a curveball. Before I could say any of the intelligent scientific things I'd rehearsed, she told me that she'd read my book, which immediately filled me with shame, because my book is a comical guide to stealing free food in graduate school. I wondered whether I had negatively influenced the future of science by stealing time from a brilliant researcher, time she could have otherwise used to cure cancer. I imagined having to apologize to the world's cancer patients: "Sorry, guys. I know you were hoping for a cure, but I distracted the scientist who was your best hope with jokes about muffins."

Credit: Hal Mayforth

Dr. Blackburn enjoyed the book, or at least she was nice enough to lie about it. "You're a very good writer," she said, and that's exactly when my brain locked up. Knowing, at a primal level, that I ought to answer a compliment with a compliment, I said, "Thanks. You're ... very good ... at, uh, learning about ... telomeres." Then, following an awkward silence during which I realized I'd possibly just made the stupidest comment Dr. Blackburn had ever heard, someone else called her away to another part of the room.

The Nobel Prize inspires awe like no other scientific award. Even an honor as vaunted as the MacArthur Fellowship needs the nickname "Genius Award" to remind everyone that it's, you know, for geniuses. When scientists dream about the best things that could happen to us, swimming in that wish cloud above our heads is the Nobel Prize, along with a first-author Science paper and a heartfelt apology from Josh Goldfeder, who used to beat us up in third grade.

As with many vaunted institutions, the Nobel Prize has become an end to which we all aspire, though not, in most cases, realistically. As much as I'd love to wear the Nobel medal around my neck to a bar to impress the ladies, I know that I'm about as likely to win a Nobel Prize as I am to win the Oscar for best supporting actress in a miniseries.

It's time, therefore, to remove the Nobel Prize's veil of celebrity, to reclaim it for scientists who've long considered it beyond their grasp. In the spirit of a much-needed facelift -- the prize is 110 years old after all -- I humbly suggest the following tweaks to the Nobel Prize Committee:

- Instead of receiving the prize money as a lump sum, awardees should be forced to spend it immediately on fabulous merchandise, just like in the first few seasons of Wheel of Fortune.

- All scientists who do not win should receive "participant" ribbons to bolster their self-esteem.

- Mathematics winners versus peace prize in beach volleyball!

- Introduce new categories, including:

o The Nobel Prize for arithmetic

o The Nobel Prize for vampire literature

o The No Bell Piece Pries, an award that does not involve prying things with pieces of bells

o The Rosalind Franklin Prize, awarded to the individual who makes the greatest contribution to science yet gets, as the kids say, "hella pwned"

- Bling the medal. Nothing tasteless, just make it the size of a wall clock with a big old rhinestone for Alfred Nobel's eye.

- Have James Franco and Anne Hathaway host the awards ceremony, because how could that not produce stellar entertainment?

- All Nobel laureates should be made to share a house and have their lives filmed while completing various stunts and probably hooking up.

- Just once, to see if anyone's paying attention, replace the image of Alfred E. Nobel with that of Alfred E. Neuman. What, me discover antimatter?

- The awards banquet in Stockholm should feature every single Swedish celebrity: Abba, the Muppets' Swedish chef, a packet of gummy fish, and an Ektorp sofa from Ikea.

No matter how you dress it up, the Nobel Prize already suffers from some of its actual arbitrary rules. Let's say that you and your friends Joe, Carol, and Floyd cure AIDS together. First of all, don't expect the Nobel Prize Committee to knock on your door with that giant check anytime soon -- Alfred Nobel stipulated that the prizes reward achievements in current science, a rule the Nobel Prize Committee has interpreted to mean "science that's at least 20 years old," so you could be waiting awhile.

Second of all, you, Joe, and Carol may split the prize -- but, sorry, Floyd, the Nobel Prize cannot be split between more than three individuals in a category. So while you, Carol, and Joe are accepting the award of a lifetime, Floyd is eating a tuna sandwich and cursing at the television. Or maybe Floyd gets the award and you get nothing -- though, based on the Nobel's track record, the snubbed party would more likely be Carol.

Finally, don't die. The Nobel isn't given posthumously, so try not to catch any diseases in the interim (besides AIDS, which you cured in the first place, and once again, congratulations on that).

With so much needless pomp surrounding such a flawed award -- an award, let's not forget, that lauded the 1926 discovery that a parasite causes cancer -- why pay attention at all? I think it's because, just like reading Us magazine, a little part of us envies the celebrities we despise. Ooh, that evil Kate Gosselin. ... But wouldn't it be cool to achieve what she has achieved? Maybe not Kate Gosselin, but you get the idea. I guess my point is that for all of our complaining, very few people have actually turned down the Nobel Prize once its light, reflected off Alfred's rhinestone eye, has shone on them. I know I wouldn't.

In a couple months, I'm going to a conference where I might get to meet Peter Agre (chemistry, 2003). This time, though, I have a foolproof strategy for not saying something stupid: I'm not going to say anything at all.

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