Nobel Prize

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Photographs of Nobel Prize Medals.
Photographs of Nobel Prize Medals.

The Nobel Prizes are prizes instituted by the will of Alfred Nobel, awarded to people (and also to organizations in the case of the Nobel Peace Prize) who have done outstanding research, invented groundbreaking techniques or equipment, or made outstanding contributions to society. The Nobel Prizes, which are generally awarded annually in the categories listed below, are widely regarded as the supreme commendation in the world today.

As of August 2005, a total of 770 Nobel Prizes have been given. However, a few prize winners have declined the award. The prize is occasionally awarded to those who persevered through critical moments in a process despite the risk of failure. There may be years in which one or more prizes are not awarded; however, the prizes must be awarded at least once every five years. The prize cannot be revoked. Since nominees must be living at the time they are nominated, it is very rare that the prize is awarded posthumously.


Prize categories

The Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, sometimes refered to as the Nobel prize in economics, was not a part of Nobel's will. It was instituted in 1969 by Sveriges Riksbank, the Bank of Sweden. Since this prize has no foundation in Nobel's will, and is not paid for by his money, it is technically not a Nobel Prize, and the present Nobel family does not accept it as such. However, it is awarded together with the other Nobel prizes.

The prizes and the ceremony

The prizes are awarded at formal ceremonies held annually in the Stockholm Concert Hall and the Oslo City Hall on December 10, the date that Alfred Nobel passed away. However, different committees and institutions that serve as selection boards for the prizes typically announce the names of the laureates in October. Each award can be given to a maximum of three people per year.

Each prize constitutes a gold medal, a diploma, and a sum of money. The monetary award is quite large, currently about 10 million Swedish Kronor (slightly more than one million Euros or about 1.3 million US dollars). This was originally intended to allow laureates to continue working or researching without the pressures of raising money. In actual fact, many prize winners have retired before winning, and many Literature winners have been silenced by it, even if younger. If there are two winners in one category, the award money is split equally between them. If there are three winners, the awarding committee has the option of splitting the prize money equally among all three, or awarding half of the prize money to one recipient and one-quarter to each of the other two. It is customary (but not mandatory) for the recipients to donate the prize money to benefit scientific, cultural or humanitarian causes.

Since 1902, the King of Sweden has formally awarded all the prizes, except the Nobel Peace Prize, in Stockholm. King Oscar II initially did not approve of awarding grand national prizes to foreigners, but is said to have changed his mind after realising the publicity value of the prizes for the country.

The Nobel Peace Prize is given in Oslo, Norway, by the Norwegian Nobel Committee. Starting in 1901, it was initially given by the President of Norwegian Parliament, until the Norwegian Nobel Committee was established in 1904. Its five members are appointed by the Norwegian Parliament (Stortinget), and it is entrusted both with the preparatory work related to prize adjudication and with the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize. Its members are independent and do not answer to lawmakers. Members of the Norwegian government are not allowed to take any part in it.

Nobel's Will

The prizes were instituted by the final will of Alfred Nobel, a Swedish chemist, industrialist, and the inventor of dynamite. Alfred Nobel wrote several wills during his lifetime. The last one was written on November 27, 1895 — a little over a year before he died. He signed it at the Swedish-Norwegian Club in Paris on November 27, 1895. He was shocked to see how his invention of dynamite was used for violent purposes and wanted the prizes to be awarded to those who served mankind well. It is said that this was motivated by his reading of a premature obituary of himself, published in error by a French newspaper who mistook Alfred for his brother Ludvig when Ludvig died, and which condemned Alfred as an 'angel of death'. So in his will, Alfred left 94% of his worth to the establishment of five prizes (physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace) for "those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind." It states:

"The whole of my remaining realisable estate shall be dealt with in the following way:
The capital shall be invested by my executors in safe securities and shall constitute a fund, the interest on which shall be annually distributed in the form of prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind. The said interest shall be divided into five equal parts, which shall be apportioned as follows: one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery or invention within the field of physics; one part to the person who shall have made the most important chemical discovery or improvement; one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine; one part to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work of an idealistic tendency; and one part to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity among nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.
The prizes for physics and chemistry shall be awarded by the Swedish Academy of Sciences; that for physiological or medical works by the Caroline Institute in Stockholm; that for literature by the Academy in Stockholm; and that for champions of peace by a committee of five persons to be elected by the Norwegian Storting. It is my express wish that in awarding the prizes no consideration whatever shall be given to the nationality of the candidates, so that the most worthy shall receive the prize, whether he be a Scandinavian or not."

Although Nobel's will established the prizes, because his plan was incomplete and due to various other hurdles, it took five years before the Nobel Foundation could be established and the first prizes awarded in 1901.

The nomination and selection process

Each year there are 100 to 250 nominees for each prize. Although anyone can be nominated, not everyone can nominate someone for a Nobel Prize. For example the website of the Nobel Foundation says that in the case of the peace prize the following people may nominate:

  • Members of national assemblies and governments of states
  • Members of international courts
  • University rectors
  • Professors of social sciences, history, philosophy, law and theology
  • Directors of peace research institutes and foreign policy institutes
  • Persons who have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize
  • Board members of organisations who have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize
  • Active and former members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee
  • Former advisers appointed by the Norwegian Nobel Institute

Similar requirements are in place for the other prizes. However, unlike many other awards, the Nobel Prize nominees are never publicly announced, and they are not supposed to be told that they were ever considered for the prize. These records are sealed for 50 years to avoid turning the awarding of the prize into a popularity contest.

The strictly enforced deadline for postmarking of nominations is February 1. Self-nominations are automatically disqualified. Only living persons may be nominated for the Nobel Prize. This has sometimes sparked criticism that people deserving of a Nobel Prize did not receive the award because they died before being nominated.

In two cases the prize has been awarded posthumously to people that were nominated when they were still alive. This was the case with UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld (1961, Peace Prize) and Erik Axel Karlfeldt (1931, Literature) — both of whom were awarded the prize in the years they died.

Criticism of the prize

Main article: Nobel Prize controversies

The prize has been criticized over the years, with people suggesting that money, influence and fame are more important than actual achievements. The most famous case for this was in 1973 when Henry Kissinger won the peace prize for bringing peace to Vietnam, when the War in Vietnam did not end until two years later.

Lack of a mathematics prize

A common legend states that Nobel decided against a prize in mathematics because a woman he proposed to (or his wife, or his mistress) rejected him or cheated on him with a famous mathematician, often claimed to be Gösta Mittag-Leffler. There is no historical evidence to support the story, and Nobel was never married.

However, there are more credible reasons why Nobel may have chosen not to recognize mathematics. At the time, mathematics was not considered a practical science from which humanity could benefit (a key purpose for the Nobel Foundation), and there was already a well known Scandinavian prize for mathematicians.

The existing mathematical awards were mainly due to the work of Mittag-Leffler, who founded the Acta Mathematica, which a century later is still one of the world's leading mathematical journals. Through his influence in Stockholm he persuaded King Oscar II to endow prize competitions and honor distinguished mathematicians all over Europe, including Hermite, Bertrand, Weierstrass, and Poincare.

The Fields Medal is widely considered an equivalent substitute for the "missing" Mathematics Nobel Prize. Some even consider it more prestigious, as it is awarded less frequently.

Other prizes

Some fields without a Nobel prize have instituted prizes of their own, most of which are not as well-known: the Léonie Sonning Music Prize, the Polar Music Prize, the Fields Medal in mathematics; also the Abel Prize in mathematics, presented by the King of Norway, the Pritzker Prize in architecture, the Turing Award in computing, the Wollaston Medal in geology, the Templeton Prize in religion, and the Schock Prizes in logic and philosophy, mathematics, visual arts and musical arts.

The WTN X Prizes, for technological solutions to pressing global needs, announced in 2004 by the World Technology Network, are in a sense a continuation of the wishes of Alfred Nobel. In his will Nobel opened the door to technological awards in both chemistry and physics, but he did not leave instructions on how to divide the recognition between science and technology. Since the deciding bodies in these domains have been more concerned with science than technology, it is not surprising that the Nobel Prizes have gone to scientists rather than to engineers, technicians or other inventors.

The Kyoto Prizes are awarded in three categories: Advanced Technology, Basic Sciences, and Arts and Philosophy. The Millennium Technology Prize is an international award for outstanding technological achievements. The Right Livelihood Awards (also known as "Alternative Nobel Prizes") are awarded to persons who have made important contributions in areas such as environmental protection, peace, human rights, health etc. In 2002 the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, an international prize for children and youth literature, was instituted in honour of Swedish children's book author Astrid Lindgren. The Kavli Foundation will begin awarding prizes in Astrophysics, Nanoscience and Neuroscience every two years from 2008. The Dan David Prize, also valued at about 1.3 million US dollars, is awarded every year in three categories - the past, present, and future.

The humorous Ig Nobel Prize is a parody which annually honours research "that cannot or should not be repeated".

See also

See also

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