Can an amateur win a Nobel Prize?

I was wondering if amateurs in science can win Nobel Prizes in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Economics (not including the Nobel Peace Prize). I’ve looked over a list of Nobel Prize winners, and almost all of them did their prize-winning research while being a professor in their field; in fact, I didn’t see any exceptions to this rule, and it was what I expected.

As far as I know, I don’t think the Nobel Prize committee explicitly excludes amateurs (non-professional scientists) from being awarded a Nobel Prize. If this is true, is the rareness or nonexistence of amateur Nobel laureates a result of 1) implicit bias/unwritten rules or convention, 2) simply because the reality has been that it’s extremely rare for an amateur to make a Nobel-worthy contribution to one of the fields, and that if it happened one day, the committee would award a prize to an amateur, say, someone with only a Bachelor’s degree in that field or perhaps even a high school/college dropout?

If 1) has historically been a factor, to either a minor or rather significant degree, what are some examples of this? If 2) is true, how can it be said with confidence that the committee will be impartial, given that the name of the researcher and his/her credentials is associated with the paper, this making double-blinding and anonymity, which are important in maintaining impartiality in other contexts (such as blind grading of law school exams, reporting sexual harassment cases, etc.)?

I.e. if a college dropout published a paper on the quantum theory of gravity, or found a room-temperature superconductor, and did not submit the paper through the peer review system but published it directly to the public, would that person be considered by the Nobel Prize committee (in Physics), assuming that the result was a genuine advance/a prediction made by the theory was experimentally confirmed by multiple and independent laboratories?

Choosing a Nobel prize winner has a large political component even for science prizes so there is peer pressure not to make some unusual choice . I can imagine an amateur might get the prize if they did something seminal but I really can’t think of any “amateur” I’ve heard in the past 50 years of performing on a level to merit the Nobel Prize.

While not “amateurs” as such these two docs were not professional scientists or researchers, but they discovered the link between helicobacter and stomach ulcers and won the Nobel Prize.

I guess it’s possible to imagine a scenario where that could happen these days, but it’s fantasy island stuff.
A fundamental reason why it is very unlikely is that real creativity and innovation in science depends on knowing the landscape and what has gone before. So plenty of Nobel prizes will have been unexpected discoveries, but it’s realising the value and potential that distinguishes Nobel prize winners. It’s impossible to see how a college drop-out would have this ability to see how their discovery fits into the structure of science. And that’s before you get to the basic practical difficulties of doing seminal, genre-defining experimental work in your garden shed.

I heard an interview with James Lovelock on radio 4 the other day, where he was described as a renegade, an outsider to the scientific establishment and the definitive garden shed scientist. All this is true when you compare him to your typical university professor. But compared to a real amateur that the OP is envisaging, he’s a million miles removed from that. Lovelock is an FRS, has deep respect from across the scientific community (albeit not always deep agreement) and is basically within the inner sanctum of science. Yet that’s the sort of person who is deemed to be an outsider, a man who did things his own way.

what about:

If there was a nobel prize for maths he would have deserved one and pretty much fits the OP’s description.

The closest I can think of is Guglielmo Marconi, who shared the prize for physics in 1909. He started out as the classic “gentleman inventor”, self-financed and experimenting in the attic of his father’s estate.

A 1911 article about the Junior Wireless Club of New York stated that the club’s unofficial slogan was “Marconi was once an amateur”.

A little nitpicking:

[li]The economy prize has has nothing whatsoever with the Nobel prizes to and should be abolished[/li][li]The different institutions that decide about the prizes have their own Nobel committees but there’s no such thing as The Nobel Committee.[/li][/ol]

Once upon a time a clerk in the Swiss patent office published five seminal papers in one year one of which was enough for a Nobel. Of course, he was a professor by the time he got the prize.

The trouble is that nowadays you have to know so much and, usually, have access to so much expensive equipment, that it seems awfully unlikely. But if you find a process for cold fusion on your kitchen table, then of course you will win a prize.

It is hard to define amateur. The literature prize hardly ever goes to professors. But it might go to a taxi driver who has the unfortunate need to eat, but considers himself a novelist by profession.

Anyway, the committee no longer pays much attention to the rules. I believe Nobel’s will stipulates that it go to the most important advance of the preceding year and more or less precluded theoretical things. (That, incidentally, seems to be why there is no prize in mathematics.) But who can possibly know the most important scientific advance in 2011? It takes many years, if not decades, to see what was important and what a passing sensation. Just to take one current example, will the discovery of the Higg’s boson turn out to lead to new physics or does it, as suggested on another thread, mean the end of particle physics? Will it be viewed as, “Ho hum, so they finally found it”? And how do you divide the prize among the hundreds who contributed? Nobel simply could not have visualized how modern science has developed.

Just to mention one more thing. Nobel believed that the invention of dynamite (presumably, in his mind, the prototype of discoveries that ought to be recognized) would lead to the end of war, because henceforth war would be so destructive that no one would dare start one. HA!!!

This is how many people think of nuclear weapons. I’m worried.

Ramanujan (post #4) was around a century ago, same for Einstein (post #7).

Before about the mid 19th century a great deal of important science, if you go back a bit further, virtually all of it, was done by amateurs. Darwin was an amateur. Arguably, so were Newton and Galileo, because, even though they were professors, they were professors of mathematics, not of physics (then considered a branch of philosophy, a separate professorate) or astronomy.

However, since well before the time when the Nobel prizes were instituted, and ever increasingly, there has been very little place of the amateur in science (except in some very special cases, like discovery of comets and collection of natural history data). Part of this is a matter of access to specialized, very expensive equipment and the skills to use it, part of it is the need for access to (and immersion in) the specialist literature, which is the only way to truly know what the problems are that need solving, but a big part of it is simply a matter of getting your voice heard and considered. In science, it is not, and never has been, simply a matter of being right. It is a matter of being able to convince the scientific community that you are right, and, yes, a big part of that consists in having the right credentials, speaking the right language, and making the right references to the literature. Even then, it can be very difficult, and a long road, for even a well accredited scientist to get a fair hearing for a radical new idea. It is more difficult than it was back in the days of Galileo, Newton and even Darwin, because there are far more scientists around who need to be convinced. This is, however, as it should be, because most radical new ideas are indeed wrong, and the barriers that science erects to getting them heard (and thus wasting time and resources on them) are a large part of what makes science work as an institution and a system for sifting truth from nonsense.

This was true even in the 19th century. After Darwin conceived of his theories of evolution and natural selection he kept the ideas strictly to himself for about 20 years, during which he gathered evidence, honed his arguments, and built himself a good reputation as a sound, respectable natural historian (mainly through his detailed studies on barnacles). Other people (and not just A.R. Wallace) had insights similar to Darwin’s, but Darwin rightly gets the credit, not because he was the only person to have the idea, but because he was the one who did most of the work (both in gathering evidence and in writing, and making clear, elegant arguments) that led to the idea being taken seriously, and eventually to it sticking.

The OP imagines a scenario where a college dropout publishes a brilliant new insight into quantum gravity “directly to the public”. No, he would have no chance of getting a Nobel Prize, not because the relevant Nobel committee would be biased against him, but because there is (as things are now) no chance that the relevant scientific community would give any attention to his ideas, and decide they were correct. Being right is very far from enough in science. The important thing, and the much harder thing, is persuading enough of the right people that you are right. Even if, by some weird coincidence, a real scientist were to become aware of the amateur’s ideas, work on them, and eventually amass enough evidence and argument to persuade the relevant scientific community that they were right (it takes a lot more than a single paper), most of the credit would go to that scientist, and not the original amateur, AND RIGHTLY SO. Clever ideas and “insights” are ten a penny; evidence and arguments sufficient to persuade the scientific community that your insight is actually correct takes a lot of work, often pretty much a whole career. That is the sort of thing that wins Nobel prizes.

Louis de Broglie won the Nobel prize in physics for his PhD dissertation. His PhD was 1924 and the prize was 1929, which is probably the shortest amount of time between results and award.

That’s quick - but the W and Z boson discovery / Nobel prize in the 80s was less than 2 years. What chance of that timeframe being slashed down to 4 months this October I wonder? [I doubt it like, but it’s a possibility].

Charles Best should have gotten the Nobel Prize for the discovery of insulin. He was a medical student when he became lab assistant for Banting for the summer. Banting was so annoyed that the Nobel comittee ignored Best that he shared his prize with him.

The Nobel committee did not fail to honour MacLeod whose main contribution to the discovery was to let Banting use a corner of the lab and supplied him with dogs to kill and two medical students as assistants -despite being very skeptical of the idea. So as you can see, the medical Nobel committee has low standards such that yes, anyone could win a prize - you don’t need to do anything scientific, or have an idea, or even think that a good idea will work.

Einstein published five original papers 1901-05 before his 1905 great papers.
In addition to his own work Einstein published eight reviews of work by others.
All these were published by the same prestigious journal which published the
great papers of 1905.

So although he did not submit his PhD thesis until 7/05 it is reasonable to say
he was a professional theoretical physicist before then, even if he did not yet
have a job in the field.

This may be true for experimentalists, but my impression is that theorists need
no more equipent than they ever did, namely a pen or pencil, and paper.

Nominations were due in February, so not for this year. Next year is a possibility, perhaps, but I honestly wouldn’t expect it for a few more years. The committee would want to be absolutely sure that this is actually the boson predicted by Higgs and not some other particle that just happens to have a mass in the range where we expect the Higgs boson to be. There’s a pretty good article at New Scientist about what, exactly, the evidence says at this point (it has a mass of about 125 GeV and either spin-0 or spin-2) and when we can expect more evidence (around the end of this year.)

Wouldn’t Al Gore be considered an amateur? Most of his life was spent in politics.

Amen, it sets my teeth on edge hearing someone described as a “Nobel-winning economist”. I’m extremely skeptical whether economics can be described as a ‘science’ in the first place.

The OP excluded the Peace and Literature prizes. Otherwise I’d have nominated Winston Churchill.

If your definition of “professional scientist” means university researchers, you don’t have to look any further back than 2009, when the physics laureates all came from the telecommunications industry, and seemed to be a little light in terms of academic research and publishing.

Of course, in their glory days the telecom laboratories had facilities and budgets that put most universities to shame. And I think that’s a key point. A researcher has to have a lot of resources to grind through the research, experimentation and peer review to make a prize-worthy contribution to science. Look at the research into cold fusion, which ultimately couldn’t even be replicated successfully.

He may have not had all the advantages of a full formal western education and degrees, but per the wiki he was more or less a full time, financially supported, published mathematician for most of his short adult life. It’s hard to call him an "amateur’.

The Higg isn’t going to be very happy about that.

There’s some speculation that the relevant Nobel committee didn’t want to give a prize for the Black-Scholes model until after Fischer Black passed away because he was working for a bank, but nothing is proved.

Yeah, the romantic aspects of Ramanujan’s story are pretty badly overblown. He was definitely a smart dude, but not the troubled solitary genius that he’s often made out to be.