How do you tell the scientific story of a city? For Cambridge, whose scientific contributions are so central to the city’s identity, this question is especially relevant. It seems that the first resort for many, including Cambridge’s famous punt guides, is to look to the impressive Nobel Prize tally of Cambridge scientists and alumni.
According to the University, its “affiliates” have been awarded more Nobel Prizes than those of any other institution. It lists a grand total of 121 Nobel laureates, among whom we count nearly 100 recipients of the scientific prizes for chemistry, physics, and physiology or medicine.
The Cambridge Nobel Prizes encompass the pioneers of modern physics, such as the quantum genius Dirac and the early Cavendish Professors Rayleigh, Thomson, Rutherford, and Bragg. They recognise the skill of the chemical structure solvers, among them Cambridge’s first female Nobel laureate Dorothy Hodgkin, two-time winner Frederick Sanger, and, of course, the DNA-duo Watson & Crick. The latter pair paved the way for molecular biologists who seem to have dominated among recent Cambridge winners, including Greg Winter, John Gurdon, and Sydney Brenner, to name but a few. There is no doubt that these prizes are an easy way to tell an illustrious punt-sized history of Cambridge science.
But the Nobel headcount is an imperfect measure of scientific success and paints only a partial picture of innovation in Cambridge. We asked ourselves what punt passengers would miss if they limited themselves to the Nobel headline.
First awarded in 1901, the Nobel Prizes are very modern in comparison to the 800 years of Cambridge academic history. The Nobel therefore fails to capture some of the biggest names from Cambridge’s past. Newton, Darwin, and Maxwell would surely be at the top of any list of all-time scientific greats. Each generation of scientists building on the work of the last, today’s Cambridge Nobel laureates are standing on the shoulders of these scientific ancestors.
Famously, the Nobel Committee also does not award prizes posthumously, meaning that an untimely death can exclude a potential recipient from Nobel immortality. The archetypal example is Cambridge alumna Rosalind Franklin, whose contributions to the solution of the DNA double helix should surely have earned her a Nobel Prize, had she lived long enough to receive it.
Computer scientists join the above in being excluded from the Nobel club. Computer science as we know it today did not exist when Alfred Nobel bequeathed the prizes in his name, and still none recognise achievement in this field. Instead, it is Cambridge fellow Alan Turing who is hailed as the father of modern computer science for his pioneering work in the early twentieth century. For this reason, the annual Turing Award named in his honour is often known as the Nobel Prize of Computing.
Others in Cambridge have built on Turing’s legacy. One local computer science success story is the Raspberry Pi, a robust, low-cost computer born and based in Cambridge. As well as enjoying its status as the best-selling computer to come out of the UK, the charitable Raspberry Pi Foundation can boast an ongoing legacy of engaging young people in, and equipping them for, the study of computer science.
Indeed, this question of scientific outreach is difficult to capture in a prize. How many future Turing Award winners will have written their first code on a Raspberry Pi? How many future Nobel laureates will owe their interest in science to the peerless Cambridge communicators Attenborough and Hawking? Although less tangible, these contributions deserve recognition in any punt tour.
The Nobel Prize succeeds in rewarding pure scientific endeavour. But science as an economic force in Cambridge relies on the commercial activity and investment of the “knowledge-intensive firms” which together generate an estimated £21bn turnover in the so-called Silicon Fen cluster. The large companies headquartered here – including the FTSE front-runner AstraZeneca and the soon-to-list Arm – as well as the smaller spin-outs and start-ups with Cambridge origins are all deserving of their place in the punt.
Nobel Prizes recognise the “one giant leaps” of scientific progress, and the blockbuster personalities behind them. But, our message to punters would be that Cambridge’s scientific contribution to the world spans beyond 100-or-so individuals. The full story is told by celebrating the great legacy of the past, the new disciplines of the present, and the commercial investment which guarantees more innovation in the future.
Nonetheless, we’ll still be watching closely for the next Cambridge Nobel laureate!