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Science in Mind

Nobel Prize prediction season kicks off

Speculation swirls around Boston-area contenders

As the weather turns crisp, some minds turn toward Sweden and the Nobel prizes. It’s true that only an exclusive coterie can realistically consider themselves contenders for the world’s most prestigious scientific prizes, to be announced next week. But with the brainpower concentrated in the Boston area, the number of people who wouldn’t be totally surprised by an early-morning phone call from Stockholm is probably larger than in most cities.

And with prize season comes Nobel prediction season, a pseudoscientific free-for-all in which people use all kinds of methods to fuel their speculations about who will win. The tools deployed range from analysis of how potentially prizeworthy research has been cited in other scientists’ papers, to scanning who’s already won coveted but less-illustrious prizes with nicknames such as “America’s Nobel” and “Canada’s Nobel.”

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Some Boston-area scientists have been regularly floated as Nobel contenders. After a method of regulating gene activity clinched the medicine prize in 2006 for a University of Massachusetts researcher, speculated increased that it might be only a matter of time before other local scientists were honored. Those scientists — Victor Ambros, a biologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and Gary Ruvkun , a biologist at Massachusetts General Hospital — are usually on short-lists for the medicine prize. Lisa Randall, a superstar Harvard University physicist, has been mentioned as a possible contender.

As an observer of science, I’ve always liked the prizes, if for no other reason that they honor basic scientific discoveries and catapult profound ideas into the spotlight. Suddenly, the intricate workings of a cell or the structure of the universe grabs the world’s attention, the importance and relevance to a general audience suddenly unassailable because of the recognition.

The predictions for this year’s prizes are rolling in, with Thomson Reuters, a media and information company based in New York, pegging a team that includes one local contender, economist Joshua Angrist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He, along with two other researchers, are predicted as possible economics prize honorees “for their advancement of empirical microeconomics.”

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.

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