The New York Times news account of the federal criminal conviction of a Harvard chemistry professor and former chairman of the chemistry department, Charles Lieber, is striking for its assessment of the motive of the crime—that Lieber was trying to advance his chances for a Nobel Prize.
From the Times article:
money wasn't the reason, he said. By training young scientists in the use of technology he had pioneered, he hoped to burnish his credentials with the committee that decides the ultimate scientific honor.
"This is embarrassing," he said. "Every scientist wants to win a Nobel Prize."
The Times article concludes:
He tried to impress on the two special agents that a different motive, the desire for acclaim, had brought him to partner with Wuhan and train scientists there.
"I was younger and stupid," he said. "I want to be recognized for what I've done. Everyone wants to be recognized." He offered a comparison he had given his son, a high school wrestler. The Nobel Prize is "kind of like an Olympic gold medal — it's very, very rare," he said.
A prize he had won recently was more like a bronze medal, he said with a self-deprecating laugh. "That probably is the underlying reason I did this," he said.
It's impossible to know if that was Lieber's real motive. But if you take him at his word, he's the second eminent full professor at Harvard to self-destruct in recent years for a reason attributed to a Nobel.
From a 2019 New York Times obituary:
Martin Weitzman, an inventive economist who argued that governments would see climate change as a more urgent matter to address if they took more seriously the small but real risks of the most catastrophic of outcomes, died on Aug. 27 in Newton, Mass. He was 77.
On Wednesday, the Massachusetts medical examiner's office, which had been awaiting the results of laboratory tests, ruled the death a suicide by hanging. Colleagues said Professor Weitzman had grown increasingly despondent after being passed over for the Nobel Prize in economics last year...
Both cases are sad, and one should probably resist the temptation to draw general conclusions from two cases. There are plenty of other Harvard professors who aren't risking federal felonies to win Nobel prizes or killing themselves after failing to win one. But it's a caution about the limits and dangers of the ambition and brilliance that wins people Nobel prizes, and faculty jobs at elite universities, to begin with, if those traits are unaccompanied by, or outweigh, other values.