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Heinlein Prize
The Heinlein Prize is in the process of choosing its first winner. (credit: Heinlein Prize)

The Heinlein Prize in perspective

The Heinlein Prize is a $500,000 prize whose purpose is to reward the person or persons who achieve practical accomplishments in the field of commercial space activities. This is a significant sum of money and this author’s prior article on the subject (see “Choosing candidates for the Heinlein Prize”, The Space Review, February 6, 2006) appears to have attracted a fair amount of attention, judging from mail and calls received. It appears useful to discuss the Heinlein Prize in context to other similar prizes such as the Nobel, Lemelson, and Draper Prizes. The hope is that any individuals who are nominated for the Heinlein Prize will favorably compare in stature to the winners of these other prizes.

Prize types

To this author there appear to be several major types of prizes. Major types include Defined Achievement Prizes, Consensus Achievement Prizes, and Future Potential Prizes.

Defined Achievement prizes are awarded in two types: recurring contests and one-time achievements. Races tend to be recurring contests, such as the America’s Cup, the Indy 500, the Kentucky Derby, and the Boston Marathon. They reward the person who does the best job at a very defined task by a set of defined rules for one moment in time. Tournaments and elimination contests allow a large field to be reduced via a series of contests. With enough prestige, competition, and prize money, recurring contests can be very distinguished. Very few people regret being an Olympic gold medalist.

One-time achievements are a reward for a novel or unique achievement that tends to be widely thought of as impossible. The first person to break the four-minute mile goes down in history, Alexander the Great cutting the Gordian Knot won Asia, Charles Lindbergh flying the Atlantic non-stop won the Orteig Prize, and ballooning around the world won the Budweiser Prize. Open achievement prizes include the Clay Mathematics Institute prizes for several intractable math problems,. With a sufficient enough challenge and a sufficiently large prize, one-time achievements become the stuff of legend.

Each nominee should be considered against the question “Is this person worth half an Einstein, or 40% of the laser?”

Consensus Achievement prizes tend to be awarded by a committee for outstanding work in a field of endeavor. The Nobel Prize, like the Fields Medal, the Lemelson-MIT Prize, and Draper Prize, are awarded when the committee feels an individual has made sufficient contribution to a field that they deserve the prize. The Heinlein Prize is a consensus achievement prize. When the awardees are of sufficient stature, the award of a consensus prize can be a truly distinguishing event.

Future potential prizes are a consensus prize not based upon results but potential to do work. The Macarthur Fellowships, best young new investigator awards, or awards for best young author look to reward potential. Oftentimes intensely political future potential prizes have the hardest time bearing fruit because it’s so hard to predict achievement from potential. Unrealized potential is almost a cliché in our world.

Heinlein versus other prizes

The granddaddy of all scientific prizes, the Nobel Prize, is awarded for outstanding achievements in medicine, science, chemistry, peace, literature and economics. The Nobel prize comes with a $1.2-million dollar stipend. Effectively the Heinlein prize is 40% of a Nobel Prize. Winners in literature have included Toni Morrison, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Saul Bellow, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Steinbeck, Sarte, Hemingway, and Churchill. Winners in science have included Lawrence, Fermi, Pauli, Einstein, Gell-Mann, and Dirac. Winners in economics have included John Nash, Milton Friedman, and Gary Becker.

While winning the Nobel is the intellectual achievement of a grand slam home run during the World Series, the Heinlein appears to be the equal of a double with two RBIs during the series. It is this author’s contention that managing to win the Heinlein twice is very close to winning a Nobel, and as such any awards or nominees should be viewed with great scrutiny towards history and significance. Each nominee should be considered against the question “Is this person worth half an Einstein, or 40% of the laser?”

Established in 1994, the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize is awarded to US inventors and innovators Doug Engelbart won the prize for inventing the mouse, graphic interfaces, and hyperlinks. Raymond Kurzweil won for pattern recognition with the reading machine for the blind; he also had a distinguished career with synthesizers, speech recognition, and artificial intelligence. Dean Kamen won in 2002 for his iBOT wheelchair; that he holds over 150 patents also helped. Carver Mead won for the gallium-arsenide transistor. Mead is now pioneering the electro-optical field at Foveon. Leroy Hood invented the DNA sequencer, the key tool for the Human Genome Project. Lemelson prizewinners have been incredibly distinguished in their fields, while mixing invention, innovation, and a real achievement towards humanity. Heinlein nominees should be of a similar stature.

The Draper Prize—also a recent prize, dating back to 1989—was named after the developer of inertial navigation. Charles Stark Draper enabled man to explore the solar system, fly around the world, and propel submarines for months underwater. Draper helped found the Draper Labs at MIT, was an MIT chairman, and mentored hundreds of students who led the international aerospace industry. Draper Prize winners have included Vint Cerf for Internet Protocol, Sam Araki for the spy satellite, Ivan Getting for GPS, and Frank Whittle for the jet engine. When the Heinlein Prize is awarded, will the winner have contributed as much as these distinguished people have?

It is the hope of this author that any winners are of the stature of the prizewinners of these other prizes, and not the stature of the Walmart bass fishing prize.

MacArthur “Genius” awards provide $500,000 stipends to support young researchers who demonstrate extraordinary originality, dedication to creative pursuits, and promise for future achievement based upon a track record of significant accomplishment, the MacArthur grant is an award of extreme note. Winners have included Amory Lovins, Tim Berners-Lee (developer of the World Wide Web), Richard Stallman (open source software), Stephen Jay Gould (paleontology), and Doug Osheroff (later to win the Nobel Prize). Will winners of the Heinlein Prize affect the world as profoundly as open source software, the Web, or statistical biology?

A prize issued to the best bass fisherman in this tour prize contest, the Walmart-FLW Prize carries a $500,000 award. The bass industry is highly competitive and generates billions of dollars in spending for boats, technology, rods, tackle, and bait. The bass industry is competitive enough that the noted author Carl Hiassen had an entire novel, Double Whammy, dedicated to the infighting, rule-breaking, greed, and corruption behind one bass fishing contest. While the Walmart-FLW Prize is a significant prize, it lacks a national presence and stature.

The Heinlein Prize is a wonderful idea, and will certainly convey much prestige on the winners. It is the hope of this author that any winners are of the stature of the prizewinners of these other prizes, and not the stature of the Walmart bass fishing prize.

This author hopes that this article will encourage the readers to contact the Heinlein prize foundation with suggestions and nominations. The following information should be helpful:

The Heinlein Prize Trust
PO Box 7466
Houston, TX 77248-7466
phone: 713-861-3600
fax: 713-861-3620

(Addendum: The author has been informed that one of the limitations on the Heinlein Prize is that achievements are being limited to events conducted since the creation of the prize. This would appear to make many of the author’s suggestions in a previous article to be moot. Consequently, the X Prize appears to be the only event that meets current Heinlein Prize rules.)