In 1996, a committee of British experts rejected the application for funding submitted by Prof. Harold Kroto for his research. Two hours later, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences issued its own verdict, awarding the Nobel Prize for chemistry to Robert Curl Jr, Richard Smalley and Harold Kroto ‘for their discovery of fullerenes’. The British committee hurriedly reconvened and reversed its decision, this time granting the funding to Kroto. The British chemist, in fact, had now entered the narrow circle of so-called ‘visible scientists’, that elite of researchers on whom awards like the Nobel Prize confer almost unassailable prestige and a reputation able to open every door.
Studying the visibility of Nobel laureates in the sciences is an extraordinary gateway for understanding the transformations in the public image of science – and of scientists – throughout the 20th century and also understanding how the Prize itself contributed to shape such image. The Nobel Prize announcements are in fact one of the occasions when science makes global headline news in the media; the halo and reputation of the prize reaching even those audiences which are quite distant and not much interested in science; in fiction – from Hollywood movies to the Simpsons – ‘Nobel’ has become a metonym for brilliant minds, genius and successful science.