What's the point of Nobel prizes?

For some they are the pinnacle of recognition, for others they reek of western bias and sexism. So who will win this year’s awards?

How did it all start?

To his family’s horror, Alfred Nobel’s last will and testament in 1895 left most of his estate, the equivalent of £148m in today’s money, to a prize fund. Having amassed a fortune from artillery factories and the invention of dynamite and other explosives, the Swedish businessman had an eye on his legacy.

The fund set up five prizes to be awarded annually to those whose work in the preceding year was deemed to “have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind”. He named five prizes: physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace.

In 1968, a donation from Sweden’s central bank established the Nobel memorial prize for economics, which family members argue is not a real Nobel. All are handed out from Sweden apart from the peace prize, which Nobel stipulated without explanation should be awarded from Norway.

How do you win one?

No one can put themselves forward, but each year thousands of professors, members of national academies, Nobel laureates and even parliamentary assemblies lobby the Nobel committees on behalf of their favoured candidates. Nominations open the preceding September and close in January.

The Nobel Foundation’s penchant for secrecy ensures that nominees are not revealed for 50 years. Nomination does not ensure success, however. Lise Meitner, who helped split the atom, never received the Nobel prize despite being nominated 48 times.

The Austrian-Swedish physicist Lise Meitner
The Austrian-Swedish physicist Lise Meitner, pictured in 1927, was nominated 48 times. Photograph: ullstein bild via Getty Images

What sort of work is rewarded?

Scientists tend to solve big puzzles or develop new technologies. Nobels have been doled out for inventions such as integrated circuits, MRI machines and a host of microscopes, and for discoveries from subatomic particles and the HIV virus to the twisted ladder of DNA and gravitational waves.

Serendipity often plays a role: in 1965, Robert Wilson and Arno Penzias feared that pigeon droppings were to blame for the annoying interference that plagued their new radio telescope. They later realised its true origins: the afterglow of the big bang.

The latest generation of satellite telescopes at a facility on Sierra Negra in Mexico.
The latest generation of satellite telescopes at a facility on Sierra Negra in Mexico. Photograph: UMass/Umass

Economists will tell you that past performance is no guarantee of future results, and with only one woman having landed the economics prize, one hopes that is true. The award has done a good job of rewarding men who create mathematical models of the world, none of which predicted that major banks would drive themselves into the ground in 2008-09.

The literature committee pores over the life’s work of each nominee for evidence that they have brought something new into the world. Humour is rarely rewarded. For Mo Yan, the first Chinese citizen to win the prize, it was “hallucinatory realism”, while Doris Lessing “an epicist of the female experience” subjected “a divided civilisation to scrutiny”. Bob Dylan, author of the line “wiggle, wiggle, wiggle like a bowl of soup” was honoured for creating “new poetic expressions”.

The peace prize is by far the most political Nobel. Unusually, it can be given to entire organisations, with past recipients ranging from the International Committee of the Red Cross and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the European Union. But plenty of individuals have won in their pursuit of peace: Dr Martin Luther King, leader of the civil rights movement; Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the human rights and anti-apartheid activist; and Malala Yousafzai, for her struggle against the suppression of children.

Dr.Martin Luther King and his wife, Coretta, wait to board a flight to Oslo to collect his peace prize in 1964.
Dr Martin Luther King and his wife, Coretta, wait to board a flight to Oslo to collect his peace prize in 1964. Photograph: AP

How much do you win?

This year, a sole Nobel prize winner will receive 9m kronor (£743,000). But since most of the prizes are shared between two or three people, the individual winnings can be as low as 2.25m kronor.

For some laureates (or their families) the gold medals are more lucrative. In 2014, James Watson became the first living laureate to auction his medal. It was bought by Alisher Usmanov, the richest man in Russia, for $4.1m (£3.3m), who then announced he would return the medal to Watson. A year earlier, the family of Francis Crick, who died in 2004, sold his medal for $2.27m.

The Nobel medal awarded to the late Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez.
The Nobel medal awarded to the late Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez. Photograph: Fernando Vergara/AP

How does it change people’s lives?

Those who win a Nobel are often propelled from a quiet life running a laboratory or writing books to minor celebrity overnight. Invitations to give talks, attend parties and pronounce opinions on a wide variety of topics come flooding in. Some are thrilled to have a platform from which to raise political issues and gain access to politicians, business leaders and the media. For others, this comes as a downside. The Anglo-Dutch laureate Sir Andre Geim joked that “journalists’ questions” were one of the negatives.


Another physics laureate, Brian Schmidt told New Scientist magazine: “One of the pitfalls of being a Nobel winner is that our voices are too loud when it comes to providing personal opinion – and in this respect, I need to be far more careful than I used to be about what I say and what I write.”

A Nobel may be expected to boost a person’s influence within their own field of expertise, but at least in some cases the reverse seems to occur. One study, which tracked the publication record of 204 Nobel laureates from 1980 to 2009, found that papers published after the award were cited less and published in more lowly journals.

Martin Chalfie, who won the chemistry Nobel in 2008, complained that he’d even struggled to recruit students since winning the prize, which he speculated could have been because people were put off by the “insufferable laureate” stereotype. “The number of people that apply to the lab, certainly, doesn’t grow and may actually plummet. No one is quite sure why that is,” he said.

Mice with the green fluorescent protein
Martin Chalfie was among a trio to win a Nobel in 2008 for their work on the green fluorescent protein (GFP). Photograph: Sam Yeh/AFP/Getty Images

Who are the contenders this year?

After postponing last year’s literature prize following a sexual assault scandal and a flurry of resignations, the Nobel Academy will hand out two prizes this year. Gerald Murnane, who pulls pints at his golf club in Goroke, 250 miles north-west of Melbourne, must be a contender. But there are plenty more: Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the Kenyan author who was jailed for a year without trial in 1978; a slew of Americans from Joyce Carol Oates to Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon, and Haruki Murakami, who is always one of the bookies’ favourites.

We could see a medicine or chemistry prize for gene editing go to Jennifer Doudna, Emmanuel Charpentier and Feng Zhang. It’s too soon for those behind the Event Horizon Telescope to win the physics prize for the first image of the point of no return around a black hole. But Alain Aspect and others are in with a chance for their work on quantum entanglement, described by Einstein as “spooky action at a distance”.

Meanwhile, the US researchers Colin Camerer and George Loewenstein have a shot at the economics prize for their work on behavioural economics and “neuroeconomics”.

The 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg has been nominated for the peace prize. But unless she was nominated before the January deadline, she cannot be considered for this year’s prize. Pope Francis is in with a chance.

Greta Thunberg gives evidence before a US congressional committee last month.
Greta Thunberg gives evidence before a US congressional committee last month. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Is there a diversity problem?

The statistics don’t look good. Very few women have been recognised over the years. When Donna Strickland was awarded the prize in physics last year, she broke a 54-year exclusively male run and became the third woman to receive it. There have only been five female chemistry winners and it’s alarming that the economics prize, supposedly a modern addition to the gongs, has the worst ratio of female to male winners, with only one woman, Elinor Ostrom, winning since 1969. Since 1901, only three women have won the physics prize.

Nobel winners by gender

An argument often wheeled out in discussions about the scarcity of women is that since Nobel prizes are often awarded to people late in their careers, the honours list reflects a time when laboratories were even less diverse than they are today. It is worth noting, that the age of winners has been increasing. Between 1931 and 1940 the average age of physics winner was 41; this decade it has been 68.

Nobel winners by age

There have also been criticisms that the awards have a western bias with the US, Canada and western Europe accounting for more than 81% of the total number of laureates since 1901. Africa is the region with the fewest – just 17, of which only seven were outside South Africa.

Nobel winners by country

More men called John have won Nobels than have Africans.

The former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is one of just 17 Nobel laureates from Africa.
The former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is one of just 17 Nobel laureates from Africa. Photograph: Nic Bothma/EPA

Have any awards turned out to be misjudged?

One of the most clearcut cases is Johannes Fibiger, who won the 1926 prize in medicine “for his discovery of the Spiroptera carcinoma”. Fibiger discovered a tiny parasitic worm which he concluded caused stomach cancer in rodents, but the animals were later shown to have skin problems caused by vitamin A deficiency. His discovery was considered “the greatest contribution to experimental medicine” at the time, but later declared “one of the biggest blunders made by the Karolinska Institute”.

Another heavily criticised choice was the 1949 prize in physiology or medicine awarded to the Portuguese neurologist António Egas Moniz for his development of the prefrontal lobotomy, a procedure that was later discredited and banned – but only after tens of thousands of patients were subjected to it.

There are also prizes that just seem a bit odd in hindsight. Nils Gustaf Dalén won the 1912 prize in physics for inventing a new kind of lighthouse valve that automatically switched off the beacon at sunrise. A boon for lighthouse keepers, but a leftfield choice, given that Einstein had just come up with the theory of relativity.

The peace prize committee arguably have the hardest task, nominating a person or organisation responsible for “the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses”. Many criticised as absurdly premature the award to Barack Obama, who was nominated within 12 days of taking office; the 1991 prize to Aung San Suu Kyi has been mired in controversy after her failure to do anything about the persecution of Rohingya Muslims by Myanmar’s military. Gandhi never received the Nobel peace prize, although he was nominated five times and decades later, in 2006, a Nobel committee declared this as the organisations “greatest omission in our 106-year history”.

Rohingya refugees gather behind a barbed wire fence in a temporary settlement between Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Rohingya refugees gather behind a barbed wire fence in a temporary settlement between Myanmar and Bangladesh. Photograph: Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images

Do the prizes ever cause problems?

There are controversies aplenty. When the then US secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, was awarded the peace prize in 1973, two Norwegian Nobel committee members resigned in protest. Kissinger had ordered a bombing raid of Hanoi while negotiating the ceasefire.

The 2010 peace prize award to Chinese writer and human rights activist Liu Xaiobo triggered a diplomatic row between the unamused communist authorities and Norway.

The 2008 prize for medicine should have been the German virologist Harald zur Hausen’s finest hour. But the prize, awarded for his discovery that HPV causes cervical cancer, was overshadowed by an anti-corruption investigation by the Swedish police over links between the pharmaceuticals company AstraZeneca, which had a major stake in HPV vaccines, and two members of the medicine prize’s selection committee (charges were never brought).

The rule of three for the science and economics prizes has been criticised for promoting the myth of the lone genius. There are also those who believe the wrong people who have been recognised. In 2003, the US doctor Raymond Damadian took out full-page adverts in several newspapers over the “shameful” decision to overlook his contributions to developing MRI, which went to Paul Lauterbur and Sir Peter Mansfield. Others are more philosophical. Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who was overlooked for her discovery of pulsars, told the Guardian she felt she had “done very well out of not getting a Nobel prize” because she had won another award almost every year since, which is “much more fun”.

Last year’s Nobel prize banquet in the Stockholm’s City Hall, Sweden.
Last year’s Nobel prize banquet in the Stockholm’s City Hall, Sweden. Photograph: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images

What happens at the ceremony?

Think pomp, royals and a touch of madness. The prizes are presented to winners on 10 December, the anniversary of Nobel’s death. The science, literature and economics prizes are handed out by the King of Sweden in Stockholm, while the chair of the Norwegian Nobel committee awards the peace prize in Oslo.

With diplomas and medals in hand, the freshly minted laureates head off to a banquet. Cue tooting trumpets, vigorous organ playing, toasts, music, dance, speeches, gallons of champagne and plates bearing such items as turbot cupolas, pumpkin gel, guinea hen mosaics, watercress foam, potato pithiviers, clouds of fruit and deep fried rice paper.

In case time drags, there is plenty of entertainment. Last year the Royal Swedish Ballet, Opera and Orchestra performed four acts on the theme of courage. In 2015, the Swedish singer Anna Ternheim sang about loneliness to the accompaniment of a string octet and a saw, followed by another singer joined by a man with a laser harp.

In 2012, it was the acrobats who stole the show. Cirkus Cirkörperformed three acts which found their way to the question: “Is it possible to knit peace?” It certainly is, according to the banquet programme. “One person is never too small to be part of a world-wide knitting for peace,” it declares.

• This article was amended on 19 November 2019 because Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered pulsars, not quasars as an earlier version said. This has been corrected.


Ian Sample and Hannah Devlin

The GuardianTramp

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