Launched at the start of the 20th century with a bequest from the man who invented dynamite, the Nobel Prizes have often proved explosive. Still, Nobel’s gold medals have become an international symbol of unassailable excellence in the fields of physics, medicine, chemistry, economics, literature and the pursuit of peace. But should they be? In the wake of this year’s awards — including honors for three scientists who advanced the understanding of black holes and a peace prize for the United Nations World Food Program — we’re taking a second look at an institution that’s long overdue for a rethink. Share your thoughts by taking this Twitter poll on whether it’s time for a remaking of the Nobel Prize.
Power & Influence
How It All Began. Swedish inventor and arms dealer Alfred Nobel made a fortune from inventing dynamite, but he started to get worried about his legacy when a French newspaper mistakenly printed his obituary in 1888. “The merchant of death is dead,” the paper declared, leading Nobel on a quest to soften his legacy. Nobel’s 1895 will included a bequest of 31 million Swedish kronor (with inflation, that’s several hundred million dollars today) “in the form of prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” Listen to OZY’s ‘Flashback’ for more.
How to Get Selected. Anyone who meets the prize committee’s nomination criteria — heads of state, former laureates and selected academics, to name a few — can offer a nomination. Nominees’ names, however, cannot be revealed for 50 years.
The Curie Dynasty. In 1903, Marie Curie won the Nobel Prize in physics (the first woman to do so), shared with her husband, Pierre, and Henri Becquerel for discovering radioactivity. Eight years later, the French researcher won again for chemistry for discovering two elements — making her one of only two people to win in two different fields. But the Curies were not done. Their daughter Irène Joliot-Curie won the chemistry prize in 1935 with her husband, Frédéric Joliot, for the synthesis of new radioactive elements. Then in 1965, UNICEF won the peace prize, which was collected by its American director, Henry Labouisse, the husband of Marie and Pierre’s second daughter, Éve Curie.
Better Late Than Never? Because of its sensitivity to controversy, the Nobel committee has a habit of awarding belated prizes … sometimes decades late. Two French virologists were awarded the medicine prize in 2008 for their 1983 discovery of HIV (after prevailing in a long-running dispute about whether they were ahead of an American researcher). And in 2010, the committee at last recognized the discovery of in-vitro fertilization — after decades of use and 4 million babies born thanks to the procedure. The delay, believed to be related to controversy surrounding “test tube babies,” meant that one of the pioneers had died and the living award recipient was 85 years old and unable to understand that he had won.
A Speech for the Ages. In 1993, Toni Morrison became the first Black female Nobel laureate by winning the literature prize. Since then, three other Black women have won a Nobel. Morrison delivered a lyrical “Nobel lecture” — a requirement of the prize to discuss a laureate’s work — in Stockholm that rings through the decades: “We die. That may be the meaning of our lives. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” Read More on OZY.
The First Americans: President Theodore Roosevelt was the first U.S. laureate when he won the Peace Prize in 1906, having helped negotiate an end to the Russo-Japanese war. America’s first science laureate came a year later when Albert Michelson, known for his work on measuring the speed of light, won the prize for physics. The Nobel winner also founded the University of Chicago’s physics department, where he served as its first head.
90 Cracks in the Glass Ceiling. From Nelson Mandela to Martin Luther King Jr. to Mother Teresa to Elie Wiesel, the Peace Prize has honored plenty of well-known giants of history. But you should read up on suffragist and peace activist Jane Addams, the first American woman to win the peace prize in 1931. For her, breaking that glass ceiling took time — a lot of time. She was nominated a record 91 times over 16 years before she won.
The Big Misses
Sima Samar. The Afghan peace activist was the truly deserving candidate for the peace prize in 2009, rather than a rookie President Barack Obama. The longtime activist for women and girls held a high post in the Hamid Karzai government but was forced to step down after opponents called her the “Salman Rushdie of Afghanistan” for criticizing the strictures of Sharia law. She went on to become a global human rights crusader, including investigating abuses in Sudan. Read more on OZY.
Mahatma Gandhi. No one received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1948, as the committee declared that there was “no suitable living candidate.” To many around the world, the man who should have won the award had died earlier that year: Gandhi was assassinated in January 1948. But the Nobel committee has repeatedly struggled to justify its failure to award Gandhi, who led India’s non-violent struggle for independence from the British and inspired Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela. He was nominated on four previous occasions — 1937, 1938, 1939 and 1947 — and the Nobel Committee could have awarded him posthumously in 1948. Read more on OZY.
Chien-Shiung Wu. The China-born American physicist is widely considered the “First Lady of Physics” for her pioneering work in disproving what was until 1956 an accepted law of nature: The principle of conservation of parity asserted that in nuclear reactions, nature doesn’t favor the left or right. Wu, who had also worked on the Manhattan Project, proved that wasn’t the case. Two of Wu’s male collaborators were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1957, but author Clare Boothe Luce wrote that Wu had nonetheless established “the principle of parity between men and women.”
Raoni Metuktire. Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro named this octogenarian tribal leader as a threat from the world’s biggest stage — the U.N. General Assembly — last year. Metuktire’s offense? As chief of the Kayapó tribe, he’s spent his life fighting to save his native Amazon rainforest that under Bolsonaro has been damaged for commercial purposes and ravaged by fires. Metuktire was nominated last year but didn’t win.
Are the Nobel Rules Outdated?: In the early 20th century, most scientific and economic research happened in small labs or university chambers, driven by individuals. Today, most cutting-edge science is collaborative, involving dozens, hundreds and even thousands of scientists at major institutions. Yet the Nobel rules don’t allow institutions to be recipients of any Nobel other than the Peace Prize. So each year, multiple scientists responsible for an invention or discovery miss out only because of an archaic rule that allows no more than three winners. It’s a challenge across most collaborative disciplines — reflected in the many recent peace prizes that have gone to organizations rather than individuals. Read more on OZY.
Warmongers for Peace. It hasn’t all been Mother Theresas winning the peace prize. Henry Kissinger is the most notorious, especially given that his 1973 prize for trying to end the Vietnam War came after his participation in the illegal bombing of Cambodia. Obama’s 2009 win came before he escalated a drone war against suspected terrorists and engineered regime change in Libya, among other military entanglements. Aung San Suu Kyi’s 1991 prize looked much better than those two in the moment, as Myanmar’s foremost political prisoner fought an oppressive regime. Yet now that she’s in charge, she’s at best looked the other way at the army’s apparent genocide against Rohingya Muslims and at worst encouraged it. (The Nobel committee has said it cannot rescind prizes.)
Free Market Godfather. Milton Friedman is one of the most influential economists of the 20th century, providing particular inspiration to the Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher governments. But the strenuous advocate for laissez-faire approaches to the market was also a lightning rod. His 1976 prize for economics — which was a belated addition to the Nobel roster in 1969 — drew opprobrium for Friedman’s association with Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.
Them Too. There was no Nobel prize for literature awarded in 2018 after a sex and corruption scandal rocked the Swedish Academy, which helps pick the award. (One academy member’s husband was accused of sexually assaulting 18 women and is now imprisoned for a 2011 rape — and his wife leaked winners that were the subject of wagering.) The result was reform of how literature winners are chosen, bringing in more outside voices onto the committee such as 33-year-old literature critic Mikaela Blomqvist. Part of Blomqvist’s charge was to make the award less male and white (Bob Dylan, really?), and two of the three winners on her watch have been women — including this year’s laureate, poet Louise Glück. Read More on OZY.
A Little Help From My Friends. Once again President Donald Trump was denied the Nobel Peace Prize this year, but hope springs eternal. Especially when he’s willing to use his connections to plead his case. Japanese media reported that when Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe nominated Trump for the prize in 2018, it came after an “unofficial” U.S. request.
Women on the Move. From 1901 — when the Nobel Prizes were first awarded — until 2017, only five women were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics or chemistry. But since 2018, that number has doubled: Five women have won the physics and chemistry Nobels in the past three years, including three just this year. What has changed? The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences tweaked its nominating procedures to encourage more female nominees, even as there’s a huge and persistent gender gap in the sciences.
Where in the World? The United States and Europe dominate the Nobels to a striking degree, with only about 2 percent of laureates hailing from Latin America, 3 percent from Africa and less than 10 percent from Asia. The numbers speak to a stark reality of systemic bias within the awards themselves, as the tight-lipped academy reveals little about its process.
Ascending the Pyramid. Those long odds mean when a laureate hails from outside Europe or the U.S., they must be impressive enough to overcome major biases. Look no further than Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian novelist whose 1988 prize catapulted him to global fame. He began writing historical novels, starting with the age of the pharaohs, but most of his works, which sometimes delve into the taboo (and dangerous) subjects of homosexuality, socialism and God, are about life in Cairo. He’s most famous for The Cairo Trilogy, a family epic set in the 20th century.
Plugging a Hole. It might be hard to imagine now, but in the 1980s the world came together to face down an emissions threat — a “hole” in the ozone layer over Antarctica — and ban the use of aerosols called CFCs that scientists said had caused the problem. Credit chemist Mario Molina, one of just three Mexican Nobel laureates, who helped discover and publicize the threat of CFCs. He died last week at age 77.
China’s Next Feat. China’s rise in geopolitics has come with a science and tech boom, but that hasn’t translated into a pile of Nobels … yet. The country has just eight laureates to its name, and it’s keen on scientific advances to earn more to improve its global stature. Yet to China’s leaders, the prizes aren’t just irksome for who they snub but for which Chinese they do pick: In 2010 jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the peace prize.
Breakthrough Prize. It’s worth a whopping $3 million, and you can only get it if you’re willing to take on the biggest questions, like “How did life begin?” or “How much is knowable?” This annual award recognizes the world’s best minds working in the fundamental sciences. The first ceremony, for the 2012 award, was held in Switzerland in 2013; subsequent events have been at the dirigible Hangar One in Mountain View, California, featuring star hosts like Morgan Freeman and James Corden, in what’s been dubbed the “Oscars of Science.”
Fields Medal. There is no Nobel for mathematics, but there is a Fields Medal. Awarded every four years since 1950, winners under the age of 40 are awarded $15,000 (Canadian) for the award named after Canadian mathematician John Charles Fields. Iranian Maryam Mirzakhani became the only woman to win a Fields Medal in 2014 for her work in geometry.
Canada Gairdner International Awards. Every year, five of these awards are given to laureates who are making an impact on global health issues. Winners get $100,000 (Canadian) to use as they wish. Nearly 100 of the recipients have gone on to win the Nobel in Medicine.
Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. They may soon call this the “award without a winner.” This $5 million award, launched in 2007, is granted annually, but only if there’s a worthy contender. And there hasn’t been one since 2017. It goes to a former African head of state for having helped develop their countries and pulled people out of poverty. In other words, great role models. Recipients also get $200,000 a year for life, making this the biggest international prize available. Notable winners include Nelson Mandela (an honorary award); Joaquim Chissano, Mozambique’s second president who helped lead the country out of civil war; and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia’s 24th president, for helping her country transition peacefully into a democracy.
Not the Nobel Prize. Sure, the title is a bit on the nose, but the creators were making a point: While Sweden’s prestigious economics prize has determined which ideas to celebrate against a backdrop of today’s economy and its widening wealth gap and increased debt, Not the Nobel Prize aims to spotlight fresh economic thinkers. This year’s winner for fresh thinking in economics, for example, went to Mariana Mazzucato, an economics professor at University College London, for “reimagining the role of the state and value in economics.” Read more about Mazzucato on OZY.
A.M. Turing Award. This “Nobel of computing” is awarded to scientists and engineers who have made contributions of “lasting and major technical importance to the computer field.” Named after British mathematician Alan Turing, the award currently comes with a prize of $1 million and is financially backed by Google.
Ig Nobels. Who says science doesn’t have a sense of humor? This prize parodies the Nobels (ignoble, get it?), and goes to scientists who have first made “people laugh, and then made them think.” Nobel laureates present the awards at Harvard University (this year via webcast — scientists know better than to congregate during a pandemic!). Recent winners have measured the volume of an average 5-year-old’s saliva; sought proof that pizza could help deter cancer, if the pizza is Italian and eaten in Italy; and checked scrotal temperature asymmetry among male French postal carriers, clothed and unclothed (you read that right). Last year’s economics prize notably went to a team that tested to see which country’s paper money transmitted the most harmful bacteria. And yes, there’s a cash prize: traditionally, it’s been the 10-trillion dollar bill … from Zimbabwe (once worth about 40 U.S. cents).
The U.S. Supreme Court’s leading liberal light died at home in Washington, D.C., on Friday, of complications from pancreatic cancer. A women’s rights and gender equality crusader, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was appointed to the country’s highest court in 1993, the second woman in history, and held the post until her death. Known for her powerful dissents on the court, she became a beloved cult figure, earning respect from people across the political spectrum and achieving near-rock-star status. OZY dedicates this weekend’s magazine to the life and legacy of America’s 107th justice, the “Notorious (and glorious) RBG.”
Joan Ruth, born in 1933, dropped her first name in elementary school in Brooklyn, where too many other kids responded to “Joan,” opting instead for “Ruth.” Later she would become known for being soft-spoken, but as a baby she kicked so much that her family called her “Kiki,” a fitting early nickname for a woman whose power of graceful dissent eventually earned her the moniker “Notorious RBG.” Kiki went on to study government at Cornell and married Martin Ginsburg shortly after graduation. She later gained entrance to Harvard Law School but transferred to Columbia Law School, where she finished in a tie at the top of her class.
Path to Feminism
With such academic brilliance, you would have thought that RBG would have been fielding a host of job offers. But as a diminutive Jewish woman in the 1960s, she struggled to get past the first round of many interviews with law firms and judges, most of whom preferred to hire non-Jewish men. She was also rejected for a Supreme Court clerkship in 1960, despite a stellar recommendation, owing to her gender. Luckily, one of her Columbia professors twisted a few arms, netting RBG an interview for a notable clerkship in New York. She would go on to become a law professor and a well-known women’s rights activist attorney — but it was a trip to Sweden that awakened the feminist in RBG. Nearly a quarter of Swedish law students at the time were women, she later told The New York Times. “I went to one proceeding in Stockholm where the presiding judge was eight months pregnant,” she said, noting how the experience opened her eyes to gender equality issues. When RBG returned to the U.S., she began teaching at Rutgers University, where she founded the first American law journal focused on women’s rights, in 1970. Two years later, she co-founded the Women’s Rights Project for the American Civil Liberties Union, tackling a series of landmark gender equality cases. Read more about the Swedish inspiration behind RBG’s activism on OZY.
Presidents and Benches
President Jimmy Carter nominated RBG to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in April 1980, where she stayed until 1993. There she became known as a consensus-builder who refused to be pulled into ideological bickering and set a standard for judicial collegiality. But a higher calling awaited. Thirteen years later, President Bill Clinton got his chance to chart American legal history by nominating the U.S. Supreme Court’s 107th justice — the first Democratic president to replace a justice since Lyndon Johnson — and did he ever: RBG was confirmed by the Senate in a 96-3 vote, and she spent the next 27 years honing her dedication to meticulous jurisprudence.
RBG’s Biggest Impact
Unlike many Supreme Court justices, Ginsburg was already a living legal legend before she joined the court. In a two-decade career as a lawyer, including at the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, she successfully argued a number of cases that expanded civil rights laws and constitutional protections for women, including winning five of the six cases she personally argued before the Supreme Court.
Key victories included Reed v. Reed (1971), which extended the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to women, barring laws that discriminated according to sex, and Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld (1975), which struck down gender discrimination in state benefits. In Weinberger, Ginsburg cleverly built her case around a man who’d been the victim of gender discrimination, one of many tactics she employed to convince mostly male courts to appreciate the harms of such discrimination.
Memorable Opinions on the Court
RBG handed down many notable opinions during her 27 years as an associate justice of the Supreme Court. Here are a few of the most memorable:
Virginia Military Institute: Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion in United States v. Virginia (1996), declaring that the all-male, state-funded VMI could not continue to exclude women. Ginsburg argued that “generalizations about ‘the way women are,’ estimates of what is appropriate for most women, no longer justify denying opportunity to women whose talent and capacity place them outside the average description.”
Ledbetter: “The court does not comprehend or is indifferent to the insidious way in which women can be victims of pay discrimination,” Ginsburg chided her majority colleagues in a scathing dissent in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. (2007), after they upheld the reversal of $3.8 million in back pay and damages awarded to Lilly Ledbetter, a woman who won her gender pay discrimination case against Goodyear, her employer. She called on Congress to take action to override the court’s decision — and the resulting legislation was the first bill signed by President Obama once he took office in 2009.
Shelby County: Ginsburg’s dissent in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013 helped spark her “notorious RBG” reputation. In that case, a majority of the court invalidated a provision in the Voting Rights Act requiring jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to submit to federal oversight before changing their voting procedures. She wrote that “[t]hrowing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
Those Who Will Carry Her Flame
Ginsburg has inspired millions, including countless female attorneys and activists following in her footsteps. Here are a few that could help advance her legacy in the years to come:
Debra Katz: Perhaps best known as Christine Blasey Ford’s attorney during the confirmation battle over now Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Katz has long been the go-to lawyer for women with sexual harassment and employment discrimination claims. She was even called “the feared attorney of the #MeToo moment” by the Washington Post.
Kimberlé Crenshaw: Crenshaw, a civil rights lawyer and law professor at both UCLA and Columbia University, specializes in race and gender equality. A pioneer in critical race theory as a scholar, she has worked for a holistic, gender-inclusive approach to racial justice interventions, including as the leader of #WhyWeCantWait, a campaign to include girls and women of color in all-male initiatives like My Brother’s Keeper.
Cecile Richards: The former Planned Parenthood president is a national leader for women’s rights and social and economic justice. In 2019, Richards co-founded a women’s mobilization group called Supermajority that “aims to train and mobilize 2 million women … to become organizers, activists, and leaders” to create a “multiracial, intergenerational movement for women’s equity.”
Justice Elena Kagan: One of the two remaining female justices on the high court, Kagan is known as a bridge builder, but she may well take up Ginsburg’s mantel for exacting jurisprudence combined with quick wit on the liberal side of the bench: She’s already known for adding pop cultural references — referencing Veep and the musical Hamilton, for example — in her opinions.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg wasn’t the only pioneering female judge giving people hope. Yvonne Mokgoro was appointed to the Constitutional Court of South Africa by Nelson Mandela, and while she retired in 2009 at the conclusion of her 15-year term, she has continued to work on behalf of women, children and human rights, overseeing a prominent report into government corruption released last year. In Britain, Lady Brenda Hale, the first female president of Britain’s Supreme Court, gave Brexit remainers an injection of optimism when she blocked a bid by Prime Minister Boris Johnson to unlawfully suspend Parliament (though she retired in January). And Brazil’s Joênia Wapixana, the country’s first indigenous lawyer, is fighting for people’s rights via the legislative branch these days after her election in 2018 as the country’s first indigenous congresswoman.
It’s the End of an Era
Republicans are vowing to replace the Supreme Court justice with fewer than 45 days before the presidential election, despite having refused to confirm an Obama appointee four years ago because it was an election year. RBG’s death, striking at a time when American political tensions are particularly high, threatens to create a nomination spectacle that could spoil faith in the U.S. electoral system for generations. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already promised a floor vote on whomever Trump nominates, with the only question being whether he thinks it helps Republicans more to do so before the election, or afterward in a potential lame-duck session. Meanwhile, Democrats have little recourse, except to threaten that they will expand and pack the court with liberal justices should they take power back in 2021, which could create a tit-for-tat cycle that delegitimizes the highest court’s authority.
Trump declared at a rally Saturday night in North Carolina that his nominee will be a woman, and speculation is focused squarely on Judge Amy Coney Barrett, 48, who serves on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. A Midwestern mother of seven, Barrett is a devout Catholic — and sharp foe of abortion. Another on the short list is Judge Barbara Lagoa, 52, who serves on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, a trailblazer from Florida who is of Cuban descent. Read more about Barrett on OZY.
As a confirmation vote looms, Republicans hold a 53-47 Senate edge, and Vice President Mike Pence would break any ties. Don’t count on any Democrats crossing the aisle, regardless of whom Trump nominates. Which Republicans could defect? Keep an eye on pro-choice GOP’ers Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins (who’s in a tough re-election fight), unlikely #resistance hero Mitt Romney and endangered incumbents like Cory Gardner. One timing wrinkle to note: If Arizona Republican Sen. Martha McSally loses, her opponent, Democrat Mark Kelly, would be seated quickly in November rather than January — because McSally was appointed to the seat, not elected. Nonetheless, the procedural and political stars are aligned for a lame-duck vote: It takes a while to go through the process, and the electoral heat will be off of key senators. Read more about next steps on on OZY.
Will RBG’s Death Tip the Election?
Trump’s 2016 decision to release a list of potential Supreme Court picks was widely considered crucial to his win, as it helped consolidate skeptical conservatives. The president had been trying again to elevate the high court as an issue even before RBG’s death as a way of drawing attention to more favorable political turf than the pandemic. Now, Washington will be consumed by this for the next few months, which could help Trump. But the politics have shifted since 2016 — Democrats now care as much about the court as Republicans: Witness the huge fundraising effort for Democratic Senate candidates in the hours after Ginsburg’s death. This fight will galvanize both party bases even more.
The Supreme Court is scheduled to consider a challenge of Obamacare a week after the 2020 election, could lead to the landmark health care ruling being struck down if an additional conservative justice is in place. Nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people were ensured by a 6-3 majority vote this summer, meaning that decision is likely safe even without Ginsburg on the bench. But in the most recent term, there were 14 decisions that came to a 5-4 vote with Chief Justice John Roberts often providing the swing vote. Many of those could now be reversed, including a decision that defied Trump and protected DREAMers this summer. And abortion will be at the top of many voters’ minds, as a law in Louisiana that would have essentially shut down all clinics in the Pelican State this summer was overturned due to Roberts’ decisive vote. The outcome would have been far different with another conservative justice on the high court, adding to liberal concerns that Roe v. Wade may soon be reversed after nearly five decades as the law of the land.
In Her Own Words
“When a thoughtless or unkind word is spoken, best tune out. Reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one’s ability to persuade.”
— From Ginsburg’s 2016 book, My Own Words
“I pray that I may be all that [my mother] would have been had she lived in an age when women could aspire and achieve and daughters are cherished as much as sons.”
— From Ginsburg’s 1993 Supreme Court acceptance speech
“Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.”
— From Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg
“She said, ‘Dear, in every good marriage it helps sometimes to be a little deaf.’ And I followed that advice in dealing not only with my dear spouse but in dealing even with my colleagues on the U.S. Supreme Court.”
— Advice offered by RBG’s mother-in-law
“I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”
— RBG in the eponymous documentary
“Dissents speak to a future age. … The greatest dissents do become court opinions and gradually over time their views become the dominant view. So that’s the dissenter’s hope: that they are writing not for today, but for tomorrow.”
—NPR interview 2002
“Some of my favorite opinions are dissenting opinions. I will not live to see what becomes of them, but I will remain hopeful. ”
—NPR interview 2002