The Nobel Prizes are generally awarded to people, (or in the case of Nobel Peace Prize, also to organizations) who have done outstanding research, invented groundbreaking techniques or equipment, or made outstanding contributions to society. In the areas it is awarded in, it is generally regarded as the supreme commendation in the world today. As of March 2005, a total of 770 Nobel Prizes have been given. However, a few prizewinners have declined the award.
Sometimes, the prize is awarded to encourage those who receive it to see the effort through, perhaps at critical moments in a process despite the risk of failure. Also, there may be one or more years in which a prize or prizes may not be awarded; however, prizes must be awarded at least once every five years. It is possible that a prize is given to some little-known individual or group. This has happened most often with the Peace Prize. The prize cannot be revoked.
The prizes were instituted by the final will of Alfred Nobel, a Swedish chemist, industrialist, and the inventor of dynamite. Alfred Nobel wrote several wills during his lifetime. The last one was written on November 27, 1895 - a little over a year before he died. He signed it at the Swedish-Norwegian Club in Paris on November 27, 1895. He was shocked to see how his invention of dynamite was used for destructive purposes and wanted the prizes to be awarded to those who served mankind well. (It is said that this was motivated by his reading of a premature obituary of himself, published in error by a French newspaper who mistook Alfred for his brother Ludvig when Ludvig died, and which condemned Alfred as an 'angel of death'.) So in his will, Alfred left 94% of his worth to the establishment of five prizes (physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace) for "those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.". It states:
- "The whole of my remaining realizable estate shall be dealt with in the following way:
- The capital shall be invested by my executors in safe securities and shall constitute a fund, the interest on which shall be annually distributed in the form of prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind. The said interest shall be divided into five equal parts, which shall be apportioned as follows: one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery or invention within the field of physics; one part to the person who shall have made the most important chemical discovery or improvement; one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine; one part to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work of an idealistic tendency; and one part to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity among nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.
- The prizes for physics and chemistry shall be awarded by the Swedish Academy of Sciences; that for physiological or medical works by the Caroline Institute in Stockholm; that for literature by the Academy in Stockholm; and that for champions of peace by a committee of five persons to be elected by the Norwegian Storting. It is my express wish that in awarding the prizes no consideration whatever shall be given to the nationality of the candidates, so that the most worthy shall receive the prize, whether he be a Scandinavian or not."
Although Nobel's will presented a magnificent plan for the prizes, because it was incomplete and because of other hurdles, it took five years before the Nobel Foundation could be established and the first prizes awarded in 1901.
About the prizes
The first ceremony to award the Nobel Prizes in literature, physics, chemistry, and medicine was held at the Old Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm in 1901:
Since 1902, King of Sweden formally awarded all the prizes except the Nobel Peace Prize in Stockholm. King Oscar II did not initially approve of awarding grand national prizes to foreigners, but is said to have changed his mind after realizing the publicity value of the prizes for the country.
The Nobel Peace Prize is given in Oslo, Norway, by the Norwegian Nobel Committee. At first, starting in 1901, it was given by the President of Norwegian Parliament. The Norwegian Nobel Committee was established in 1904. Its five members are appointed by the Norwegian Parliament (Stortinget) and it is entrusted both with the preparatory work related to prize adjudication and with the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize. Its members are independent and do not answer to lawmakers. Members of the Norwegian government are not allowed to take part in it.
The prizes are awarded at a formal ceremony held annually on December 10, the date that Alfred Nobel passed away. However, different committees and institutions that serve as selection boards for the prizes typically announce the names of the laureates in October. Each award can be given to a maximum of three people per year.
Each prize constitutes a gold medal, a diploma, and a sum of money. The monetary award is quite large, currently about 10 million Swedish Kronor (slightly more than one million Euros or about 1.3 million US dollars). This was originally intended to allow laureates to continue working or researching without the pressures of raising money (In actual fact, many prize winners have retired before winning, and many Literature winners have been silenced by it, even if younger). If there are multiple winners of one subject, the award money is split equally among the winners.
The nomination process
Each year there are 100 to 250 nominees for each prize. Although anyone can be nominated, not anyone can nominate anyone else for a Nobel Prize. For example the website of the Nobel Foundation says that in the case of the peace prize the following people may nominate:
- Members of national assemblies and governments of states
- Members of international courts
- University rectors
- Professors of social sciences, history, philosophy, law and theology
- Directors of peace research institutes and foreign policy institutes
- Persons who have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize
- Board members of organizations who have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize
- Active and former members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee
- Former advisers appointed by the Norwegian Nobel Institute
Paraphrased from Nobel Prize for peace nominator qualifications.
The strictly enforced deadline for postmarking of nominations is 1st February. If someone nominated himself or herself, they would automatically be disqualified. Only living persons may be nominated for the Nobel Prize. This has sometimes sparked criticism that persons deserving of a Nobel Prize never received the award because they passed away before being nominated.
In the past in two cases the prize was awarded posthumously to people that were nominated when they were still alive. This was the case with UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld (1961, Peace Prize) and Erik Axel Karlfeldt (1931, Literature) - both of whom were awarded the prize following their death the same year. The rules were amended in 1974 to prohibit being awarded after the nominee has already died. For example, William Vickrey who was nominated in 1986 for the Nobel Prize in Economics, died three days after the announcement, but two months before the actual award. The award was given to James M. Buchanan.
Similar requirements are in place for the other prizes. However unlike other awards ceremonies the Nobel Prize nominees are not publicly announced and they are not supposed to be told that they were ever considered for the prize. The records are sealed for 50 years. This is done to avoid turning the awarding of the prize into a popularity contest. Due to this secrecy it is questionable whenever someone uses a Nobel nomination as a qualification (how could you check it?).
Prizes have been awarded annually since 1901 for achievements in:
After Nobel's death it turned out that he had not asked any of the deciding bodies whether they would accept the responsibility; they decided to do so after quite a lot of hesitation.
In 1969, Sveriges Riksbank, the Bank of Sweden, instituted the "Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel". The first Nobel Prize in Economics was awarded to Ragnar Anton Kittil Frisch and Jan Tinbergen for "having developed and applied dynamic models for the analysis of economic processes". Also, the Nobel Committee made a decision not to add any more prizes "in memory of Nobel" in the future.
Economics (decided by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences)
Since this prize has no foundation in Nobel's will, and is not paid by his money, it is technically not a Nobel Prize (and the present Nobel family does not accept it as such). It is however awarded together with the other Nobel prizes.
In February of 1995, it was decided that the economics prize be essentially defined as a prize in social sciences, opening the Nobel Prize to great contributions in fields like political science, psychology, and sociology. Also, the Economics Prize Committee was changed to require two non-economists to decide the prize each year, whereas previously the prize committee had consisted of five economists.
There are no such entities as a Nobel Peace Prize in Physics, in Chemistry, and so on.
Some fields without a Nobel prize have instituted prizes of their own which are not as well-known: the Polar Music Prize, the Fields Medal in mathematics; also the Abel Prize in mathematics, presented by the King of Norway, the Pritzker Prize in architecture, the Turing Award in computing, the Wollaston Medal in geology, the Templeton Prize in religion, the Schock Prizes in logic and philosophy, mathematics, visual arts and musical arts.
In a sense the prizes announced recently by the World Technology Network are an indirect continuation of the wishes of Alfred Nobel, as he set them out in his testament. In this short one page document he stipulated that the money should go to discoveries or inventions in the physical sciences and to discoveries or improvements in chemistry. He had opened the door to technological awards, but he had not left instructions on how to do the split between science and technology. Since the deciding bodies in these domains were more concerned with science than technology it is not surprising that the prizes went to scientists and not to engineers, technicians or other inventors.
The Kyoto Prizes are awarded in three categories: Advanced Technology, Basic Sciences, and Arts and Philosophy. The Millennium Technology Prize is an international award for outstanding technological achievements. The Right Livelihood Awards (also known as "Alternative Nobel Prizes") are awarded to persons who have made important contributions in areas such as environmental protection, peace, human rights, health etc. In 2002 the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, an international prize for children and youth literature, was instituted in honour of Swedish children's book author Astrid Lindgren. The humorous Ig Nobel Prize is a parody which annually honors research "that cannot or should not be repeated".