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The Nobel Prize

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Awarded for Outstanding contributions in Physics, Chemistry, Literature, Peace, and Physiology or Medicine.

The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, commonly identified with the Nobel Prize, is awarded for outstanding contributions in Economics.

Presented by Swedish Academy
Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
Karolinska Institutet
Norwegian Nobel Committee
Country Sweden, (Norway)
First awarded 1901

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The Nobel Prize (Swedish: Nobelpriset) is a Swedish prize, established in the 1895 will of Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel; it was first awarded in Peace, Literature, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, and Physics in 1901. An associated prize, The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, was instituted by Sweden’s central bank in 1968 and first awarded in 1969. The Nobel Prizes in the specific disciplines (Chemistry, Physics, Physiology or Medicine, and Literature) and the Prize in Economics, which is commonly identified with them, are widely regarded as the most prestigious award one can receive in those fields. The Nobel Peace Prize conveys social prestige and is often politically controversial.

Ceremony

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With the exception of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Nobel Prizes and the Prize in Economics are presented in Stockholm, Sweden, at the annual Prize Award Ceremony on the 10th of December, the anniversary of Nobel’s death. The recipients’ lectures are presented in the days prior to the award ceremony. The Nobel Peace Prize and its recipients’ lectures are presented at the annual Prize Award Ceremony in Oslo, Norway, also on the 10th of December. The reason why Norway distributes a part of the prize is that at the time of Alfred Nobel’s death, Norway and Sweden were joined together in a personal union known as the Swedish-Norwegian Union.[3][4] The award ceremonies and the associated banquets are nowadays major international events.

Alfred Nobel’s will

Five Nobel Prizes were instituted by the final will of Alfred Nobel, a Swedish chemist and industrialist, who was the inventor of the high explosive dynamite. Though Nobel wrote several wills during his lifetime; the last was written a little over a year before he died, and signed at the Swedish-Norwegian Club in Paris on 27 November 1895. Wishing to atone for the evil done with dynamite, Nobel bequeathed 94% of his total assets, 31 million Swedish Kronor, to establish and endow the five Nobel Prizes. (As of 2008 that equates to 186 million US dollars.)

The whole of my remaining realizable 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 Karolinska Institutet 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 expressed 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 Scandinavian or not.

Alfred Nobel, Alfred Nobel’s Will

Although Nobel’s will established the prizes, 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 on 10 December 1901.

Nomination and selection

Compared with some other prizes, the Prize nomination and selection process is long and rigorous. This is a key reason why the Prizes have grown in importance over the years to become the most important prizes in their field.

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The Nobel laureates are selected by their respective committees. For the Prizes in Chemistry, Physics and Economics, a committee consists of five members elected by The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences; for the Prize in Literature, a committee of four to five members of the Swedish Academy; for the Prize in Physiology or Medicine, the committee consists of five members selected by The Nobel Assembly, which consists of 50 members elected by Karolinska Institutet; for the Peace Prize, the Norwegian Nobel Committee consists of five members elected by the Norwegian Storting (the Norwegian parliament). In its first stage, several thousand people are asked to nominate candidates. These names are scrutinized and discussed by experts in their specific disciplines until only the winners remain. This slow and thorough process, insisted upon by Alfred Nobel, is arguably what gives the prize its importance. Despite this, there have been questionable awards and questionable omissions over the prize’s century-long history.

Forms, which amount to a personal and exclusive invitation, are sent to about three thousand selected individuals to invite them to submit nominations. For the peace prize, inquiries are sent to such people as governments of states, members of international courts, professors and rectors at university level, former Peace Prize laureates, current or former members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, among others. The Norwegian Nobel Committee then bases its assessment on nominations sent in before 3 February. The submission deadline for nominations for Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Literature and Economics is 31 January. Self-nominations and nominations of deceased people are disqualified.

The names of the nominees are never publicly announced, and neither are they told that they have been considered for the Prize. Nomination records are sealed for fifty years. In practice some nominees do become known. It is also common for publicists to make such a claim, founded or not.

After the deadline has passed, the nominations are screened by committee, and a list is produced of approximately two hundred preliminary candidates. This list is forwarded to selected experts in the relevant field. They remove all but approximately fifteen names. The committee submits a report with recommendations to the appropriate institution. The Assembly for the Medicine Prize, for example, has fifty members. The institution members then select prize winners by vote.

The selection process varies slightly between the different disciplines. The Literature Prize is rarely awarded to more than one person per year, whereas other Prizes now often involve collaborators of two or three.

While posthumous nominations are not permitted, awards can occur if the individual died in the months between the nomination and the decision of the prize committee. The scenario has occurred twice: the 1931 Literature Prize of Erik Axel Karlfeldt, and the 1961 Peace Prize to UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld. As of 1974, laureates must be alive at the time of the October announcement. There has been one laureate—William Vickrey (1996, Economics)—who died after the prize was announced but before it could be presented.

Recognition time lag

Nobel’s will provides for prizes to be awarded in recognition for discoveries made “during the preceding year”, and for the first years of the awards, the discoveries recognized were recent. However, some awards were made for discoveries that were later discredited. Taking the discrediting of a recognized discovery as an embarrassment, the awards committees began to recognize scientific discoveries that had withstood the test of time, in violation of the letter of the will.

The interval between the accomplishment of the achievement being recognized and the awarding of the Nobel Prize for it varies from discipline to discipline. Prizes in Literature are typically awarded to recognize a cumulative lifetime body of work rather than a single achievement. In this case the notion of “lag” does not directly apply. Prizes in Peace, on the other hand, are often awarded within a few years of the events they recognize. For instance, Kofi Annan was awarded the 2001 Peace Prize just four years after becoming the Secretary-General of the UN.

Awards in the scientific disciplines of physics and chemistry require that the significance of achievements being recognized is “tested by time.” In practice it means that the lag between the discovery and the award is typically on the order of 20 years and can be much longer. For example, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar shared the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on stellar structure and evolution from the 1930s. Unfortunately, not all scientists live long enough for their work to be recognized. Some important scientific discoveries are never considered for a Prize if the discoverers have died by the time the impact of their work is realized.

Award ceremonies

The committees and institutions serving as the selection boards for the Nobel Prizes typically announce the names of the laureates in October, with the Prizes awarded at formal ceremonies held annually on 10 December, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel‘s death. In 2005 and 2006, these Prize ceremonies were held at the Stockholm Concert Hall, with the Nobel Banquet following immediately in the Blue Hall of Stockholm City Hall. Previously, the Nobel Prizes ceremony was held in a ballroom in Stockholm’s Grand Hotel.

The Nobel Peace Prize ceremony has been held at the Norwegian Nobel Institute (1905-1946); at the Aula of the University of Oslo (1947-1990); and most recently at the Oslo City Hall.

A maximum of three laureates and two different works may be selected per award. Each award can be given to a maximum of three recipients per year. Each “Nobel Prize Award” consists of a gold medal, a diploma, and a monetary grant:

The highlight of the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony in Stockholm occurs when each Nobel Laureate steps forward to receive the prize from the hands of His Majesty the King of Sweden. In Oslo, the Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee presents the Nobel Peace Prizein the presence of the King of Norway. Under the eyes of a watching world, the Nobel Laureate receives three things: a diploma, a medal and a document confirming the prize amount.

The grant is currently 10 million SEK, slightly more than US$1.5 million.

If there are two winners in a particular category, the award grant is divided equally between the recipients. If there are three, the awarding committee has the option of dividing the grant equally, or awarding one-half to one recipient and one-quarter to each of the others. It is not uncommon for recipients to donate prize money to benefit scientific, cultural or humanitarian causes.

Since 1902, the King of Sweden has, with the exception of the Peace Prize, presented all the prizes in Stockholm. At first King Oscar II did not approve of awarding grand prizes to foreigners, but is said to have changed his mind once his attention had been drawn to the publicity value of the prizes for Sweden.

Until the Norwegian Nobel Committee was established in 1904, the President of Norwegian Parliament made the formal presentation of the Nobel Peace Prize. The Committee’s five members are entrusted with researching and adjudicating the Prize as well as awarding it. Although appointed by the Norwegian Parliament (Stortinget), they are independent and answer to no legislative authority. Members of the Norwegian government are not permitted to sit on the Committee.

Nobel Prize medals

The Nobel Prize medals, which have been minted by Myntverket in Sweden and the Mint of Norway since 1902, are registered trademarks of the Nobel Foundation. Their engraved designs are internationally-recognized symbols of the prestige of the Nobel Prize. All of these medal designs feature an image of Alfred Nobel in left profile on their front sides (the face of the medal). Four of the five Nobel Prize medals (Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, and Literature) feature the same design on their faces (front sides). The reverse sides of the Nobel Prize medals for Chemistry and Physics share a design. Both sides of the Nobel Peace Prize Medal and the Medal for The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel are unique designs.

The Nobel Prize medals in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine and Literature are identical on the face: it shows the image of Alfred Nobel and the years of his birth and death (1833-1896). Nobel’s portrait also appears on the Nobel Peace Prize Medal and the Medal for the Prize in Economics, but with a slightly different design. The image on the reverse varies according to the institution awarding the prize. All medals made before 1980 were struck in 23 carat gold. Today, they are made from 18 carat green gold plated with 24 carat gold. They each weigh approximately 200 g and has a diameter of 66 mm.

Due to their gold content and public display, Nobel medals are subject to medal theft. During World War II, the medals of German scientists Max von Laue and James Franck were (illegally) sent to Copenhagen for safekeeping. When Germany invaded Denmark, chemist George de Hevesy dissolved them in acid, to prevent confiscation by Nazi Germany and to prevent legal problems for the holders. After the war, the gold was recovered from solution, and the medals re-cast.

Controversies and criticisms

Since the first Nobel Prize was awarded in 1901, the proceedings, nominations, awards and exclusions have generated criticism and engendered much controversy.

Overlooked achievements

Mahatma Gandhi was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize five times between 1937 and 1948 but never received the prize, being assassinated on 30 January 1948 two days before the closing date for the 1948 Peace Prize nominations. The Norwegian Nobel Committee had very likely planned to give him the Peace Prize in 1948 as they considered a posthumous award, but ultimately decided against it and instead chose not to award the prize that year.

The strict rules against a prize being awarded to more than three people at once is also a cause for controversy. Where a prize is awarded to recognise an achievement by a team of more than three collaborators, inevitably one or more will miss out. For example, in 2002, a Prize was awarded to Koichi Tanaka and John Fenn for the development of mass spectrometry in protein chemistry, an award that failed to recognise the achievements of Franz Hillenkamp and Michael Karas of the Institute for Physical and Theoretical Chemistry at the University of Frankfurt.

Similarly, the prohibition of posthumous awards fails to recognise achievements by a collaborator who happens to die before the prize is awarded. Rosalind Franklin, who was key in the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953, died of ovarian cancer in 1958, four years before Francis Crick, James D. Watson and Maurice Wilkins (one of Franklin’s collaborators) were awarded the Prize for Medicine or Physiology in 1962. Franklin’s significant and relevant contribution was only briefly mentioned in Crick and Watson’s now-famous paper: “We have also been stimulated by a knowledge of the general nature of the unpublished experimental results and ideas of Dr. M.H.F. Wilkins, Dr. R.E. Franklin, and co-workers….”

In some cases, awards have arguably omitted similar discoveries made earlier. For example, the 2000 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for “the discovery and development of conductive organic polymers” (1977) ignored the much earlier discovery of highly-conductive charge transfer complex polymers: the 1963 series of papers by Weiss, et al. reported even higher conductivity in similarly iodine-doped oxidized polypyrrole.

Lack of a Nobel Prize in Mathematics

There is no Nobel Prize in Mathematics, which has led to considerable speculation about why Alfred Nobel omitted it (one story contends that this is because Nobel’s partner had an affair with a mathematician, although this has not been proven). Some recipients of the Nobel Prize in other fields also have notable achievements in or have made outstanding contributions to mathematics; for example, Bertrand Russell was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature (1950) and Max Born and Walther Bothe shared the Nobel Prize in Physics (1954). Some others with advanced credentials in mathematics and/or who are known primarily as mathematicians have been awarded the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel: Kenneth Arrow (1972), Leonid Kantorovich (1975), John Forbes Nash (1994), Clive W. J. Granger (2003), Robert J. Aumann (who shared the 2005 Prize with Thomas C. Schelling), and Roger Myerson and Eric Maskin (2007).

Several prizes in mathematics have some similarities to the Nobel Prize. The Fields Medal is often described as the “Nobel Prize of mathematics”, but it differs in being awarded only once every four years to people not older than forty years old. Other prestigious prizes in mathematics are the Crafoord Prize, awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences since 1982; the Abel Prize, awarded by the Norwegian government beginning in 2001; the Wolf Prize awarded once a year by the Wolf Foundation; the Shaw Prize in mathematical sciences awarded since 2004; and the Gauss Prize, granted jointly by the International Mathematical Union and the German Mathematical Society for “outstanding mathematical contributions that have found significant applications outside of mathematics,” and introduced at the International Congress of Mathematicians in 2006. The Clay Mathematics Institute has devised seven “Millennium Problems,” whose solution results in a significant cash award: since it has a clear, predetermined objective for its award and since it can be awarded whenever a problem is solved, this prize also differs from the Nobel Prizes.

Emphasis on discoveries over inventions

Alfred Nobel left a fortune to finance annual prizes to be awarded “to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind”. One part, he stated, should be given “to the person who shall have made the most important discovery or invention within the field of physics”. Nobel did not emphasize discoveries, but they have historically been held in higher respect by the Nobel prize committee than inventions: 77% of Nobel prizes in physics have been given to discoveries, compared with only 23% to inventions. Christoph Bartneck and Matthias Rauterberg in papers published in Nature and Technoetic Arts, have argued this emphasis on discoveries has moved the Nobel prize away from its original intention of rewarding the greatest contribution to society in the preceding year.

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