SCIENTISTS HAVE LONG BEEN INTERESTED in superconductivity -- the ability of certain materials to conduct electricity without resistance at extremely low temperatures. It was first discovered in 1911, and its great promise was evident from the start. But there was a huge practical problem: As electricity flowed through the supercooled metal, it created a magnetic field, which in turn generated an electric current moving in the other direction that canceled out the initial flow of power.
A breakthrough came after World War II, when researchers found that certain substances -- "type-II" superconductors -- maintained their superconductivity even in the presence of strong magnetic fields. In 1950, two Russian physicists, Vitaly Ginzburg and Lev Landau, developed equations showing that a wave function accurately explained the relationship between superconductors and magnetic fields. Two years later, building on Ginzburg and Landau's work, Alexei Abrikosov cracked the puzzle of how "type-II" superconductors operate: He theorized that the magnetism swirls through them like a series of hurricanes. Within the "eye" of each "hurricane" the superconductivity fades; outside it, the vortex it is preserved.
The modern world would be crippled without superconductivity, which make possible applications as diverse as particle accelerators and MRI scanners. Fitting, then, that Ginzburg and Abrikosov received the Nobel Prize in physics. The 2003 prize, that is. Now 87 and 75, respectively, they became Nobel laureates just last week -- more than half a century after their pioneering work. (Landau won the 1962 physics prize for other research; a third physicist, Anthony Legget, shared the prize this year for his related work on superfluidity.)
Most Nobelists don't have to wait 50 years for their achievements to be honored, but gaps of a decade or two are typical. Consider:
Max Planck's revolutionary paper on quantum theory -- a seminal event in the history of physics -- was published in 1900; he received the Nobel Prize for it in 1918. Albert Einstein's discovery of the photoelectric effect -- a 1905 achivement -- earned him the Nobel Prize in physics in 1921. James Watson and Francis Crick figured out the structure of DNA in 1953; they didn't receive the Nobel Prize in medicine (with Maurice Williams) until 1962. The 1924 Nobel in medicine went to Willem Einthoven for discovering the mechanism of the electrocardiogram. He had done the work between 1895 and 1905.
It is much the same with the literature Nobels. They aren't given for new writing or to an author in the first flush of acclaim. Almost always the prize has been made in recognition of a significant body of work produced -- and assessed -- over many years. In fact, many of the laureates received their Nobel only at the end of their lives. S.Y. Agnon, Andre Gide, Pablo Neruda, Luigi Pirandello, and Boris Pasternak, to mention just a few, died less than five years after winning the prize.
All in all, there may be no testamentary instruction more regularly flouted than Alfred Nobel's stipulation that the annual prizes go to the people who had conferred the greatest benefit on mankind "during the preceding year." And a good thing, too. It means that before a scientist, author, or economist receives a Nobel Prize, his work has been sifted and weighed and put to the test of time. Its importance has been established, often through years of peer review. As a result, the science, literature, and economics Nobels rarely end up looking foolish or naive.
Too bad the same can't be said of the peace prize.
While the other Nobels are awarded by committees of Swedish scholars and scientists, the peace laureate is chosen by a committee of Norwegian politicians. Like politicians everywhere, the peace prize committee tends to be more interested in what the headlines will say tomorrow than in what historians will believe 20 -- or 100 -- years from now. And unlike their Swedish counterparts, the Norwegians often intend their choice to have a political impact.
That isn't always a bad thing. In giving this year's peace prize to the Iranian human rights activist Shirin Ebadi, the committee said it hoped "the Prize will be an inspiration for all those who struggle for human rights and democracy in . . . the Moslem world." It expressed similar hopes when it awarded the prize to Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma in 1991 and to Andrei Sakharov in 1975.
But too many times the committee rushes to jump on a popular bandwagon, rewarding this or that "peace process" before it actually ripens into peace. It gave the prize to Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho for their sham accord in 1973, which led not to peace for Vietnam, but to a brutal conquest and communist tyranny. Three years after Kim Dae Jung of South Korea received the prize, his "sunshine policy" toward North Korea -- singled out for praise in the Nobel citation -- is a wreck. The same UN peacekeeping forces that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1988 refused to lift a finger to stop genocide in Rwanda and mass murder in Srebrenica, Bosnia, just a few years later.
It will be a long time before the Norwegian committee lives down its worst decision -- the 1994 award to terrorist chieftain Yasser Arafat (with Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin) for signing the Oslo Accord in 1993. Had the committee been in less of a hurry, it would have come to realize what everyone now knows -- that Arafat's commitment to murder and warfare was undiminished.
The Swedes take their time with Nobel prizes. It's time the Norwegians learned to do likewise.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe. To follow him on Twitter, click here.)