A bittersweet Nobel

It’s that time of year again – Nobel Prize season.  Today the physics prize was announced, and all over the twittosphere science writers were tweeting about one of the recipients – the first Nobel Prize winner with a non-professional twitter account! (@cosmicpinot) Would it, could it out-trend the iPhone 5 announcement? How many followers would he have by the end of the day? (It went from 350-1,230 by the end of the day in Switzerland….)

The physicist-tweeter, Brian Schmidt, is an amateur wine-maker from Australia; he also happens to be an astronomer who contributed to the stunning discovery that the universe is expanding at an accelerated pace. The mystery to it all is dark energy, which nobody understands yet. He shared the prize with Adam Riess from the Johns Hopkins University, who said, “The phone rang, it was 5:30 and it was some Swedish sounding people, and I knew they weren’t from IKEA…”

I know from personal experience that the IKEA in Baltimore doesn’t open until 10:00 sharp. No, that 5:30 phone call can only be one of two possibilities … either your teenage son is calling from the police station asking you to bail him out, or you’ve won the Nobel Prize. And from his picture, Riess looks way too young to have a teenage son.

The third winner, Saul Permutter, is at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in California. If they all got the news at the same time, he would have been woken at 2:30 am. “Mom? Is that you? No? Inge? What? A Prize? Holy shit, honey, I won the Nobel Prize!”

Things didn’t go so well for the Medicine awardees. This year’s prize was to be split, like the physics prize, between three men, half going to Ralph Steinman (New York) for his work on the role dendritic cells play in immunity, and the other half shared between Jules Hoffman (France) and Bruce Beutler (California) for their work showing how the immune system recognizes an intruder. The committee deliberated, made their choice, and then tried, in vain, to contact the recipients on Monday morning.

But 68-year-old Steinman had died on Friday night, after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. His family had not yet contacted Rockefeller University. When they did, the University immediately told the Nobel Committee. But the committee had already made the official announcement.  Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously, unless the person dies between the annoucement of the prize and the awards ceremony. Technically, Steinman had died before the announcement. What would the Swedes do?

They did the right thing, and announced that Steinman’s prize stood; the money will go to his heirs. They made their decision in good faith that he was alive, and indeed, he fought valiantly to stay alive to receive the news. In addition to standard chemotherapy, he treated himself with a vaccine based on his own research, surviving for four years, which is no small feat in pancreatic cancer. Only 20% of pancreatic cancer victims survive more than a year after diagnosis. Only 4% make the five-year mark.

The news touched me deeply – all I could think about was his family. My dad died of pancreatic cancer, and he, too, was treated with technology he helped invent (radiation therapy), also ultimately in vain. The story brought all those emotions back in force. I cannot imagine the overwhelming experience this must be for his family, all this media attention on top of the horrible pain of the loss, and the wrenching regret that he had to miss out on this extraordinary life event.

My heart goes out to them. The research he did will one day save many lives, but this life, the one that mattered to them, has been snuffed out far too soon.