How ‘Nobel’ are the Nobel Prizes?

In 2019, Indian-American economist Abhijeet Banerjee made headlines for winning the Nobel Prize in Economics, along with Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer for their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty. His achievement brought great pride to the nation, given his Indian descent. The same year, 11 other influential nominees won the Nobel Prize, including John B. Goodenough, M. Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino, the winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their development of lithium-ion batteries.

What is the hype about? 

The Nobel Prize is considered one of the most prestigious awards given for intellectual achievements in specific fields. The establishment of the Nobel prize dates back to 1895 by the Swedish Alfred Bernhard Nobel, a renowned chemist, inventor, industrialist, businessman, and philanthropist, known for his invention of dynamite.

In Nobel’s last will and testament, Nobel dedicated much of his fortune in the form of prizes for those who will have done their best for humanity in the fields of physics, chemistry, physiology, medicine, literature and peace. While his reason for doing so remains unknown, a popular belief is that his decision was driven by his regret over the lethal effects of his invention of dynamite, especially its increase use in war. It is speculated that he wished to make amends by contributing positively to the society. As per his directions, a fund was created for this purpose and on 10th December 1901, the 5th anniversary of the death of Alfred Nobel, the very first Nobel Prizes were awarded in Stockholm, Sweden in the mentioned fields of physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and peace. The Sveriges Riksbank Prize or Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences was established in 1968 by Sveriges Riksbank, the Central Bank of Sweden in the memory of Alfred Nobel and was first awarded in 1969. The prizes are awarded to the Laureates in Stockholm, Sweden on 10th December of every year.

Who awards the prize?

The responsibility for selecting the Nobel Laureates in Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Literature and Economic Science rests on the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The Norwegian Nobel Committee, a five-member committee appointed by the Norwegian parliament, is responsible for the selection of eligible candidates for the Nobel Peace Prize Laureates. Unlike the others, the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded in Oslo, Norway. Between the years 1901 and 2019, the Nobel prizes, including the prize in Economic Sciences, have been awarded 597 times to 923 laureates and 27 organisations. Nobel laureates range from internationally recognised figures such as Barack Obama, Mother Teresa, Marie Curie, to name a few, to relatively unknown scientists. Nobel laureates receive three things, namely a Nobel diploma, a Nobel Medal and a document confirming the Nobel Prize amount, which was set at SEK 9 million per Nobel Prize as of 2019. Winners can be individuals, groups or even organisations.
Winning a Nobel Prize in any field is highly commendable and respectable. However, there have been many critiques of the Prize and the choice of winners and there have been numerous controversies surrounded the Nobel Prize over the years.

Far from perfect

The biggest criticism that the Nobel Prize faces, especially the Nobel Prize in Sciences, is the way scientists are recognised for their work. Bound by the conditions listed in Nobel’s will, a Nobel Prize can be shared by a maximum of three Laureates. This leaves out the contributions of many important scientists and in researches that require collaboration, this rule is extremely unfair. The very first prize in medicine in 1901 was awarded to Emil von Behring for the discovery of antitoxin. However, his close collaborator Shibasaburo Kitasato did not receive one. Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne, and Barry Barish, who received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2017 for their discovery of gravitational waves—distortions in the fabric of space in a project named Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) project, were only 3 authors out of a list that runs to three pages. The Nobel committee is also plagued with issues regarding discrimination as winners are more often than not, white and male. Hardly 53 women have been awarded the Nobel Prize, with a meagre 20 in the Sciences.

As per the directions of Alfred Nobel’s will, posthumous nominations for the prizes are not allowed. This rule has met with heavy criticism as many deserving people did not receive a Nobel Prize because they were nominated after they passed away. As it can often take decades to determine whether a person’s work has been impactful enough to deserve a Nobel, this restriction on Nobel prizes can be quite counteractive.

The Nobel Prize, even with its broad categories, leaves out many important fields, like mathematics, biology, computer science, environmental sciences and technology. Despite being the most fundamental theoretical disciple and the foundation for most sciences, there is no Nobel Prize for Mathematics and it is unlikely to be added anytime soon. Since the first Nobel was awarded in 1901, the world has changed dramatically and, with the advent of the information era, technology has become increasingly relevant. However, the Nobel Prizes don’t reflect this change and innovations that have altered the course of human history, like lightbulbs, steam engines, aeroplanes, automobiles, internet, mobile phones, etc. and their inventors do not receive the recognition they deserve.

A few controversies

There have been times when the awarding committee has miscalculated — Nobel Prizes have been awarded to people whose discoveries turned out to be wrong. Johannes Fibiger’s discovery that roundworms cause cancer was later disproved. However, his Nobel Prize in Medicine, awarded in 1926, was not revoked. Many nominees, especially those for the Peace and Literature Prizes, have sparked controversies and backlash around the world with incessant demands to revoke the prize awarded to them. Past laureates have supported eugenics, opposed public school, been under arrest by their home countries and even joined the Nazi party. Even Barack Obama’s Peace prize win raised eyebrows with people claiming that it was premature and the committee’s reasoning for awarding him with the honour was supposedly vague. The committee does not provide complete transparency when it comes to their selections as the Nobel documents are sealed for 50 years, hence such controversies cannot be addressed easily either.

There have also been embarrassing occasions with awardees turning down the Nobel Prize for a variety of reasons. The most controversial instance of this happening is when Richard Kuhnand (Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1938), Adolf Butenandt (Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1939) and Gerhard Domagk (Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 1939) were forced to decline the prize by the German government under Adolf Hitler. Russian writer Boris Pasternak, author of Doctor Zhivago, was also forced to do so in 1958 by the Soviet government. Jean-Paul Sartre, the winner of the Prize in Literature in 1964, turned it down due to his belief that writers shouldn’t be affiliated with any institution. For negotiating an armistice in Vietnam, Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho were awarded the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize, but they refused it, claiming that peace had not yet been established.

Nobel prizes will continue to be an integral part of the scientific community. However, it is important to see that they evolve with time to be more relevant to the current scenario.

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