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    Slow Nobel, fast Nobel

    FILE-- Juan Manuel Santos, president of Colombia, in New York, Sept. 25, 2015. Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on Oct. 7, 2016, for pursuing a deal to end 52 years of conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the longest-running war in the Americas, just five days after Colombians rejected the agreement in a shocking referendum result. (Malin Fezehai/The New York Times)
    Juan Manuel Santos, president of Colombia, won the Nobel Peace Prize this week.

    If good things come to those who wait, a Nobel Prize must be a very good thing indeed.

    The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences this week awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry to a trio of European researchers: Britain’s J. Fraser Stoddart, Jean-Pierre Sauvage of France, and Bernard Feringa of the Netherlands. The three laureates were honored for their pioneering work in the creation of molecule-sized machines — minuscule elevators and motors that are, as the prize committee explained, “a thousand times thinner than a hair strand.”

    What these three scientists have accomplished is remarkable. Without question, they have opened the door to even more astonishing feats of nanotechnology. Engineering marvels that previously existed only in the realm of science fiction — microscopic drug-delivery devices, say, or molecular robots tiny enough to grasp and repair damaged strands of DNA — are on the horizon.


    Yet until the Nobel announcement on Wednesday, this paradigm-shifting breakthrough in science made no headlines in 2016. That’s not because Stoddart, Sauvage, and Feringa’s achievements weren’t newsworthy. It’s because they weren’t new. The work for which these men are being hailed dates back decades. It was in 1991 that Stoddart figured out how to get a ring-shaped molecule to move back and forth along an axle like a shuttle. Sauvage’s foundational insight — a formula for getting molecules to link together in chains — occurred in 1983.

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    The three chemistry laureates aren’t youthful hotshots. They are in their 60s and 70s. The same is true of biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi, 71, who received the 2016 prize for medicine. Even older, at 81, is David Thouless, one of the trio of British researchers who shared this year’s physics prize. It isn’t impossible for scientists to win a Nobel Prize early in their careers, but it is exceedingly rare.

    In his will, Alfred Nobel specified that the annual prizes should go to recipients who had conferred the greatest benefit on mankind “during the preceding year.” The Swedish committees that choose the laureates in the sciences, literature, and economics tend to ignore that requirement. As a result, when scientists, writers, or economists get a Nobel Prize, the significance of their work is almost never in doubt.

    Quite different is the Nobel Peace Prize, which is often bestowed on recipients for achievements that turn out to be ephemeral.

    The Norwegian Nobel Committee, which awards the prize for peace, often notes that its goal is to have an immediate political impact. The committee announced Friday that the 2016 Nobel prize will go to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who is being honored for “his resolute efforts to bring the country’s more than 50-year-long civil war to an end.” Yet peace is far from assured: Just days earlier, Colombians voted in a referendum to reject the proposed peace accord. By making this award now, the committee said, it hopes to encourage “the ongoing peace and reconciliation process” and give Santos the “strength to succeed” in salvaging the negotiations.


    That is a consummation devoutly to be wished, but in the past, such good intentions have often proved fruitless. The 1973 prize went to Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho for a Vietnam “peace” accord that resulted in the brutal conquest of South Vietnam. The United Nations Peacekeeping Forces, honored with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1988, refused to act in the face of mass murder in Rwanda and Srebrenica, Bosnia, just a few years later.

    When it comes to science and literature, a Nobel Prize is usually a confirmation of greatness. When it comes to peace, it is more often an expression of good will — often admirable, but no guarantee.