The interactive exhibition looks at common traits and exceptions among Nobel Prize winners. Credit: BITM

What sets Nobel Laureates apart from their peers? Is there a winning formula? Does anecdotal analysis of the successful cases reveal a pattern?

An exhibition at the Birla Industrial and Technological Museum (BITM), in Kolkata, is attempting to find answers to these questions by diving deep into the lives and work for Nobel Prize winners.

‘Nobel Worthy – What It Takes To Be’ explores the stories of 954 winners from 27 organisations awarded the Nobel Prizes in science over 127 years of the prize through texts, graphics and multimedia presentations. The exhibitors call it a "a light-hearted take on the nuances associated with the Nobel as revealed by the winners themselves."

“We relied heavily on the advice of Richard J. Roberts who won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1993 for his work on gene structure,” said Aditi Ghosh, an education officer at the BITM, who conceived the exhibition. Roberts famously wrote ten simple rules to win a Nobel Prize in 2015.

Perseverance, patience or failures

Analysing the common thread that led the winners towards their success, the exhibition identifies perseverance, patience, failures, accidents, luck and family background as key factors.

In 1911, American pathologist Francis Peyton Rous discovered that a transmissible virus could cause tumours in chickens. It was not until 1966 that Rous, considered an epitome of patience, won the prize.

Luck favoured Alexander Fleming. In 1928, Fleming chanced upon a mould called Penicillium notatum whose secretion killed common Staphylococcus bacteria in an uncovered petri dish. The mould’s juice contained penicillin that also killed a wide range of harmful bacteria. Fleming shared the prize in Medicine in 1945 with Ernst Boris Chain and Howard Florey, who produced a pure form of penicillin.

Svante Pääbo, the 2022 winner for Physiology or Medicine, was the first to retrieve and sequence DNA bits from a Neanderthal bone. Based on this, he published a draft genome over a decade ago in 2010.

Family matters

The 615 awardees include nine whose parents are also Laureates, six couples won jointly, and a pair of siblings won in different years and separate fields . “This is impressive given a world population of 10 billion over the same period of time,” Ghosh told Nature India. Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre Curie, won the Physics Nobel in 1903, while their daughter Irene with her husband Frederic Joliot-Curie won the Chemistry Prize in 1935.

The only siblings to win the Nobel were Jan and Nikolaas Tinbergen of the Netherlands. Jan won the Prize in Economics in 1969 followed by Nikolaas in Medicine in 1973.

Aage Bohr and his father Niels Bohr both won the Physics Prize. The latest father and son winners are Pääbo and his father Sune Bergström who won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1982.

Biology shines

Biology is always changing, because of evolutionary trends. It encompasses disciplines such as medicine, agriculture, conservation, computer science, among others. Interdisciplinary approaches can lead to new territory and discoveries. Two categories currently being awarded are physiology or medicine, and Chemistry, in which biologists have received about half the awards.

The other rules Roberts speaks of are — work in the laboratory of a previous Laureate, be nice to senior scientists, never start your career aiming to win the Nobel, and collaborate with other scientists. “Many of the winners were recognized among peers as unique, long before they were awarded,” said Subhabrata Chaudhuri, director of BITM.

Being pleasant to fellow scientists increase the odds of winning the prize. Einstein’s prize came with 66 nominations between 1910 and 1923. On nine occasions between 1919 and 1954, Einstein nominated future laureates.

Bucking the trend

The exhibition also shortlists laureates, not necessarily in the sciences, who didn't fit any of these trends. For instance, Malala Yousafzai was 17 when she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014. Har Gobind Khorana, who won the prize for physiology or medicine in 1968, was not white. Emil Fischer, the chemistry winner in 1902 wore the weirdest of glasses, and Wilhelm Röntgen, the winner in Physics in 1901, probably sported the longest beard.

BITM, a unit of India's National Council of Science Museums, is hosting the exhibition till 10 December 2022. Soumitro Banerjee, a professor in the department of physical sciences at the Indian Institute of Science Education & Research in Kolkata admitted at the launch of the exhibition that there is no magic formula to win the prize. "If I knew, I would would have got it myself," he joked. But there are common traits among winners ― such as dreaming of the imposible and asking questions unashamedly ― that scientists could cultivate in their pursuit of excellence, Banerjee said.