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.
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.”
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.
In 1903, Marie Curie (pictured) 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.
4. 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.
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.”
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.
7. 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.
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The Afghan peace activist was perhaps 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.
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.
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.”
4. 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.
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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.
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.)
3. 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.
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.
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.
1. Women on the Rise
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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
1. 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.”
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
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.”
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.
7. 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 yearvia 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).