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Published on March 20th, 2017 | by Guest Contributor

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Open Letter: John Goodenough Deserves A Nobel Prize

March 20th, 2017 by  

Originally published on Same Facts.
By James Wimberley

An open letter to the Chemistry Committee of the Nobel Prizes urging them at long last to award the Nobel Prize to Professor John Goodenough, who invented the lithium-ion battery. If you agree, you can email a message of support to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences at info@kva.se.

Dear Members of the Nobel Chemistry Prize Committee:

I am writing to support the award of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry to John Goodenough, who invented the lithium-ion battery over 30 years ago.

It is common knowledge that Professor Goodenough, now aged 94, has been repeatedly nominated and considered for the chemistry prize, and is certain to be nominated again. You already have all the information you need about his innovation as a piece of chemistry. I am sending you this open letter (which will simultaneously be published on my group blog) not as another chemist, since my qualifications in the field are negligible, but to remind you of some more general aspects of the case.

You have undoubtedly had reasons for denying him the prize in the past. I imagine that these have to do with the quality of the relevant work as a contribution to the discipline, in deepening understanding of chemical processes, and opening up new avenues of inquiry. I will assume for the sake or argument that your judgement here is correct, as I am in no position to challenge it. Perhaps you have said: this is mere tinkering, not profound science. Again for the sake of argument, let us posit that the lithium-ion battery is rightly so described.

This tinkering has had more impact for good than any other chemical discovery in the last half-century. It has directly enabled not one but two technical and social revolutions:

– Mobile phones have now reached 4.6 billion users,  60% of the population of the planet. 2 billion of these use smartphones, that make available the multiple resources of the Internet. Mobile telephony offers the best path to the connected humanity prefigured in Kipling’s ode to the submarine telegraph cables  – “Let us be one!”

– Electric cars and commercial vehicles are now well over a million worldwide. Their expected rapid growth is critical to the success of the energy transition and thus to our prospects of heeding Arrhenius’ prophetic warning in 1896 of anthropogenic climate change.

If these were not enough, Li-ion batteries are leading the way towards widespread home energy storage, leveraging the impact of solar panels and causing alarm in the boardrooms of traditional electric utilities around the world. They will also support the spread of solar electrification in the millions of villages where the poorest of humanity live.

The basis of Alfred Nobel’s fortune was dynamite, another chemical innovation of negligible theoretical interest. We may all be sure that he valued useful tinkering.

You are not originalists and the Nobel prizes are not awarded by guessing what scientists Nobel would have approved of. However the prizes he founded as a whole clearly reflect a catholic view of the work of the human mind. The literature and peace prices reward endeavours that are not in science at all. The prize for physiology and medicine rewards discoveries that advance human health. The later addition of economics by the Rijksbank is almost universally seen as an appropriate extension of the family, and as with the other prizes criticisms focus on the awards not the principle.

I suggest that the general strategy and spirit of the Nobel prizes points to openness to applied as well as theoretical advances. Your colleagues in physics recognized this in 2014 when they awarded their prize to the three inventors of the blue LED, overcoming the barrier to white light and mass deployment of this efficient and durable lighting source.

It might well be said: if Goodenough had not invented the lithium-ion battery that is embodied in these upheavals somebody else would have found it later, or a good substitute. True. But exactly the same point can be made about any scientific discovery, and every winner of the Nobel prizes in science. You write your chapter of the history of science wie es eigentlich gewesen, not straying into hypotheticals.

A final point concerns the place of science in society. It is not flattery to observe that the Nobel prizes have a pivotal role in a scientific ecosystem powered by the drive for recognition rather than money. As Milton wrote,

Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise
(That last infirmity of noble mind)
To scorn delights, and live laborious days.

The three scientific Nobel prizes serve a double function: as the apex of the professional reward system in the disciplines they cover, and as as the public face of that system, giving the world human representatives of the dedicated life that scientists admire.

I suggest that the latter function is the more important. Disciplines like mathematics, linguistics, computer science and philosophy establish their professional pecking orders perfectly well without benefit of the Nobel Foundation. Where they can envy physics, chemistry and medicine is that the Nobel Prizes enjoy unique recognition among the general public. I would never write to the committee awarding the Fields Medal, and I am I think unusual in the population of social science graduates in knowing it exists.

The public function requires the Nobel committees to consider the wider impact of their selections as well as the professional. It would be actively dangerous to foster a perception that the scientific community looks down on innovators like John Goodenough who change the world. Since the Renaissance, science has sought public support and, increasingly, funding on the basis of a double argument: knowledge is good for the soul (Plato), and will pay off in mastery of nature (Bacon). Both arguments are necessary, just as applied and fundamental research fertilize each other and resist compartmentalization.

For a good many years, the threat to public support of science has mainly come from philistine technocrats who know only Bacon and reject Plato. Utility is all. In that world, it has been important to defend the Platonic value of understanding for its own sake, and reward blue-sky advances in theory without immediate application.

But a new threat to science has arisen, from populists, demagogues, theocrats and hired publicists who deny the scientific enterprise as a whole, pure and applied. They reject its common values of respect for reason and evidence and its collegial and cosmopolitan procedures of challenge and scrutiny. In this environment, science needs to close ranks and defend itself as a whole, theorists and tinkerers rowing together against the tsunami as in Hokusai’s great print.

So I, along with many others, ask you to award John Goodenough the prize for chemistry while you still have the opportunity.

Yours sincerely

James Wimberley

Reprinted with permission.


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