A Nobel Calling

The glittering Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm City Hall might not be held until December, but the Swedish Nobel committees don’t like to keep potential prizewinners in suspense. So according to tradition, the winners are announced in early October.

The prizes are awarded according to the final wishes of Alfred Nobel, a Swede who invented dynamite and went on to become a wealthy industrialist.

Upon Nobel’s death, in 1896, it was discovered in his will that he wanted his remaining cash “annually distributed in the form of prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.”

Luckily, Nobel had no wife. It is otherwise likely she would have been a bit disappointed with the results of the testament.

As “the greatest benefits to mankind” was perhaps a bit vague, the will goes on to clarify what Nobel meant, creating awards, to be handed out by Swedish academies, for Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature, and an award for Peace to be handed out by a committee in Norway.

A few questions arise from these stipulations, namely: why no Mathematics prize, why Norway for the Peace Prize, and where the heck is the Economics Prize?

The answer to the first two questions: nobody knows for sure. Nobel, himself, had no comment.

One theory regarding a lack of a mathematics award include the perception about the subject at the time of Nobel’s death as not a science from which humanity could benefit, That there already existed another Swedish prize in Mathematics, making Nobel feel an additional Mathematics award was unnecessary, could also be an explanation.

The most commonly assumed theory, though, is Nobel, like many, didn’t really like Mathematics.

Regarding the Peace Prize going to Norway, again reasons are not clear. It is believed that Norway’s union with Sweden at the time of the will put Norway in the running for a hand in award selections. As to why it was the prize for Peace, specifically, that went to Norway, Peace Prize historian Geir Lundestad supposes, “Since the scientific prizes were to be awarded by the most competent, i.e. Swedish, committees, at least the remaining prize for Peace ought to be awarded by a Norwegian committee.”


Then there is the question of the Economics Prize. Officially termed “The Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel”, the award in economics is actually not a “real” Nobel prize, but a Nobel Memorial prize created in 1969 by the Riksbanken to, among other things, celebrate its 300th birthday.

Others usually throw a party.

Controversy has emerged regarding the economics prize, mostly revolving around claims that the prize honors not those who have most helped humanity, but instead most helped stockbrokers.

Interestingly, no woman has ever won the Economics Prize.

Marie Curie was the first woman to win one of the other Nobel Prizes. She receive the Physics award in 1903, just 2 years after the award’s inception. Incidentally, she was also the fourth woman to win, receiving the award for Chemistry in 1911.

If you would like to nominate a woman for a Nobel Prize, or man for that matter, you are welcome to do so. The selection committees, however, are not likely to listen, unless you are a former Nobel Laureate or distinguished expert in the field.

Though nomination and selection processes differ between the academies, in general, invitations are sent each year to university professors, scientists, and qualified individuals in numerous countries, requesting nominations.

The selection committees, comprised only of Swedes for the awards chosen in Sweden, and only of Norwegians for the Peace Prize, set a deadline for nominations of Febuary 1st, and announce the winners each October. Up to three recipients can be awarded for each prize, provided they are not dead. (Since 1974, Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously unless the recipient has died following the announcement sometime in October but before receiving the prize on December 10.)

For any other information regarding recent nominations and selection processes, you will have to wait. As stipulated by Mr. Nobel, information about nominations, investigations, and opinions concerning the award is to be kept secret for a period of 50 years.

So it not possible to examine, for example, how Henry Kissinger came to be a co-recipient of the Peace Prize just one year after the US intensified its bombing of Hanoi, or to see if the committee wondered if the other co-recipient that year, Le Duc Tho, of Vietnam, would accept the Prize along with Kissinger (which he did not).

Others who have declined a Nobel Prize include Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre did not accept the Literature Prize in 1964, in part, because of his belief that his acceptance would “create an association with an institution and that a writer should not become an institution.”

Had he accepted the prize, Sartre would have received 273,000 kronor of the institution’s funds. Nobel prize money has steadily increased since the first award in 1901, but, interestingly, has gone through a period of relatively low real value. In 1901, a winner received 150,782 kronor which in 2005 terms equals 7 million kronor. In 1964, Sartre’s 273,000 was, in 2005 terms, worth ‘only’ around 2 million kronor. This trend has, however, since 1980 or so, corrected itself.

Prize money for this year is 10 million kronor, which in 2005 terms, and any other terms for that matter, is quite a lot.

Jody Sherwood

What is the real value of the Nobel Prize? Discuss in Swedology!

Front page photo: Hans Pettersson/ Nobel Foundation/