The Rule of Three for Prizes in Science and the Bold Triptychs of Francis Bacon
An expanded version of these remarks originally appeared in Cell.
For many scientific awards, such as Nobels and Laskers, the maximum number of recipients is limited to three. This Rule-of-Three forces selection committees to make difficult decisions that increase the likelihood of singling out those individuals who open a new field and continue to lead it. The Rule-of-Three is reminiscent of art’s three-panel triptych. The master of the modern triptych is the British artist Francis Bacon, who used the triptych format to distill a complex story so that it could be painted and told in a bold way.
What’s Magic About the Number 3?
There’s something magical and magisterial about the number 3. Religion has its Holy Trinity; literature has its Three Musketeers; comedy has its Three Stooges; folk music has its Peter, Paul and Mary; thoroughbred racing has its Triple Crown; the universe has its First Three Minutes. In baseball, it’s Three Strikes and You’re Out; In science, it’s the Nobel Rule of Three. And in art, it’s the Three-Panel Triptych.
Origin of the Nobel Rule-of-Three
The original will of Alfred Nobel made no mention of the number of recipients who could share a Nobel Prize. For the first 50 years of Nobel Prizes (1901-1950), the prizes in every category were given primarily to one or two individuals with very few exceptions (Levinovitz and Ringertz, 2001). In 1902, one-half of the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Henri Becquerel for his discovery of spontaneous radioactivity, and the other half was shared between the husband and wife team of Pierre and Marie Curie for developing methods for measuring radioactivity and identifying new radioactive elements such as radium. A physics prize to three was not given again for 54 years at which time William Shockley, John Bardeen, and Walter Brattain were honored in 1956 for the discovery of the transistor.
2016 Lasker Medical Research Awards Jury
Seated, left to right: J. Michael Bishop, University of California, San Francisco ● Charles Sawyers, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center ● Lucy Shapiro, Stanford University ● Joseph Goldstein, Chair of the Jury, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center ● Robert Horvitz, Massachusetts Institute of Technology ● Erin O’Shea, Howard Hughes Medical Institute ● Richard Locksley, University of California, San Francisco
Standing, left to right: Marc Tessier-Lavigne, Stanford University ● Dan Littman, NYU Langone Medical Center ● Tom Maniatis, Columbia University ● Christopher Walsh, Harvard University ● Craig Thompson, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center ● Titia de Lange, Rockefeller University ● Gregory Petsko, Weill Cornell Medical College ● Huda Zoghbi, Baylor College of Medicine ● Bruce Stillman, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory ● Cori Bargmann, Rockefeller University ● James Rothman, Yale University ● Jeremy Nathans, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine ● Paul Nurse, Francis Crick Institute ● Harold Varmus, Weill Cornell Medical College ● Michael Brown, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center
Not pictured: Richard Lifton, Rockefeller University