Monday, March 22, 2004

Is the Nobel Committee Biased Against Creationists? The Nobel Prizes for 2003 were announced recently. Receiving the prize for physiology and medicine were Paul C Lauterbur and Peter Mansfield, of Urbana, IL and Nottingham, England respectively, for their work in Magnetic Resonance Imaging. The official announcement is available here

The controversy is over the exclusion of Dr. Raymond Damadian from this prize. Damadian is often credited as the inventor of the MRI. So why was he not among the recipients?

The Nobel committee is famously secretive about its deliberations, so one can only speculate. And one speculation that's been going around the internet is that Damadian did not receive the prize because of his religious views. Damadian, you see, is a hard-core, young-Earth creationist.

This hypothesis received a major boost from this editorial written by Florida State University philosopher Michael Ruse. For many years now Ruse has been one of the most eloquent defenders of evolutionary theory against creationist attack. He's written dozens of books on this subject, and famously testified on behalf of evolution in the 1981 creationism trial in Arkansas. So if he is jumping on the bandwagon, the charge of religious bias is worth taking seriously. Here's an excerpt from Ruse's article:

But perhaps Dr. Damadian does have reason to feel having been slighted for the wrong reasons. He is not just an inventor, but also a very prominent Christian. And not just a Christian of any bland kind, but a Creation Scientist - one of those people who believes that the Bible, especially including Genesis, is absolutely literally true - six days of creation, Adam and Eve the first humans, universal flood, and all of the rest. It is as least as likely a hypothesis that Damadian was ignored by the Nobel committee because they did not want to award a Prize to an American fundamentalist Christian as that they did not think his work merited the fullest accolade. In the eyes of rational Europeans - and Swedes are nothing if not rational Europeans - it is bad enough that such people exist, let alone give them added status and a pedestal from which to preach their silly ideas. Especially a scientific pedestal from which to preach their silly anti-science ideas.

The trouble is that Ruse presents no actual evidence that Damadian was denied the prize because of his religious beliefs; saying "it is as least as likely a hypothesis" and adding a crude stereotype of Swedish people is not much of an argument. And even a brief look into the history of MRI technology reveals that, in this case, the sinister hypothesis is not necessarily the correct one.

A concise history of this subject is available in this short article from Smithsonian magazine, published in 2000. Here's a quote:

Later that same year, Paul Lauterbur, a chemist and NMR pioneer at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, conceived of a way to use NMR to produce an image. His idea, documented in a notebook, entailed using magnetic field gradients to map out a series of points. In 1973 Lauterbur produced the first NMR image of a small amount of water in a test tube, a feat he published in the journal Nature. Soon after, he imaged the first live subject: a tiny clam.

Though Lauterbur's gradient approach quickly gained favor over Damadian's human scanner method, Damadian filed for a patent on his concept in 1972 and received it in 1974. He forged ahead, determined to make the first human scan. Aided by graduate students, he built the heart of Indomitable, a homemade superconducting magnet, from roughly 30 miles of niobium-titanium wire wrapped on a cylinder. The magnet, a hollow cylinder, spanned 53 inches in diameter, big enough to swallow up a human. On top, the team installed an elaborate liquid helium cooling system to keep resistance in the wire near zero. But the helium leaked miserably, costing $2,000 a week and reducing the magnet's strength.

What seems clear is this: The phenomenon of "Nuclear Magnetic Resonance" (NMR), upon which MRI's are based, has been known since the thirties. Fundamental breakthroughs in the understanding of this phenomenon resulted in a Nobel Prize in Physics for Felix Bloch and Edward Mills in 1952.

Damadian was the first one to realize that this phenomenon potentially had medical applications, and theorized about how this application could be realized. But his approach was fundamentally flawed and impractical. At around the same time Paul Lauterbur developed a far more practical method of using NMR in medical applications, and it is upon his ideas that modern MRI technology is based. Mansfield's contribution was to significantly improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the imaging technology.

So does Damadian deserve a Nobel Prize? I don't know, but the point is certainly arguable. Sure he build the first MRI machine, but he did it using a flawed and impractical design. Many other researchers were working on the same ideas at the time. Damadian's having gotten there first only reflects his willingness to emphasize speed over usefulness and practicality. Yes, he was the first to conjecture that NMR could be used in medicine, but it fell to others to turn that idea into reality. Damadian himself based his speculations upon the work of many others. Perhaps all of them deserve Nobel prizes as well.

As an analogy, the idea of evolution had been proposed several times prior to Darwin, most notably by Jean Baptiste De Lamarck. Darwin is given credit for discovering evolution, however, because it was he who turned it into a workable theory. Lamarack's contribution seems comparable to Damadian's. He had the original insight but was unable to develop it into something workable. Were Nobel prizes given out in those days, I doubt if Lamarck would have received one alongside Darwin.

If it turns out that religious bias really was a factor here, then I would agree with Ruse. Crazy ideas in one branch of science do not negate accomplishments made in other branches. But so far I see no convincing evidence of religious bias.


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