What are Nobel Prizes?

The Nobel Prizes are prestigious awards given to people who stand out in different fields of science, specifically in one of the 5 existing categories:

  1. Physics.
  2. Chemistry.
  3. Literature.
  4. Peace.
  5. Medicine.

nobel prize

Alfred Nobel was the creator of these awards. This Swedish industrialist was enriched by the invention of dynamite.

However, seeing the warlike use that was being made of his invention, he felt guilty and signed the institution of these awards in his will.

Alfred Nobel’s last wish has, therefore, become one of the world’s most prestigious awards and a recognition for those who have contributed in different fields of science.

In Nobel’s own words:

“All that remains of my fortune will be disposed of as follows: the capital, invested in secure securities by my executors, will constitute a fund whose interest will be distributed each year in the form of prizes to those who, during the previous year, have done the greatest good for humanity (…) It is my express wish that, in awarding these prizes, the nationality of the candidates will not be taken into consideration, but that those who receive the prize will be the most deserving, whether they are Scandinavian or not.

The first Nobel Prize ceremony took place in 1901 and since then the winners receive, in addition to the diploma, the sum of 10 million Swedish crowns – about one million euros.

History

The prizes were instituted as a last will of Alfred Nobel, inventor of the Swedish Dynamite and industrialist who stipulated it in his will signed in the Swedish-Norwegian Club of Paris on November 27, 1895.

Alfred Nobel felt guilty for his responsibility as an enriched entrepreneur through the Dynamite producing industry whose main market was Mining.

Likewise, also from the war, and this may have been the motivation to create a foundation to manage their assets and finance actions dedicated to the welfare of humanity, the main will of his famous will.

Besides, it also served him to follow the custom of the time of performing actions that made his name transcend upon his death.

The prize

The first Nobel Prize ceremony for Literature, Physics, Chemistry, and Medicine was held at the former Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1901.

Since 1902, the awards have been presented by the King of Sweden. Initially, King Oscar II did not agree to give the award to foreigners, but it is said that he changed his mind when he realized the enormous advertising potential for the country.

The prizes are awarded to scientists or living personalities, never postmortem, at a ceremony held annually in the Stockholm Concert Hall, following the banquet at the City Hall on 10 December, the date of Alfred Nobel’s death.

The Nobel Peace Prize is awarded in Oslo, Norway. The names of the laureates, however, are usually announced in October by the various committees and institutions that act as selection boards for the awards.

At the same time as the diplomas and a gold medal are awarded, an important financial prize is awarded. In 2015, the prize was around SEK 10 million (just over EUR 1 million), depending on the change of the period.

The purpose of this sum is to avoid the economic concerns of the prizewinner so that he can better develop his future work, thus promoting the development of culture, science, and technology around the world.

The various fields in which prizes are awarded are as follows:

  1. Physics (decided by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences).
  2. Chemistry (decided by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences).
  3. Physiology or Medicine (decided by the Karolinska Institute).
  4. Literature (decided by the Swedish Academy).
  5. Peace (decided by the Norwegian Nobel Committee of the Norwegian Parliament).
  6. Economy, created in 1968 by the Sveriges Riksbank (Swedish Central Bank). 

Officially it is called the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel.

Alfred Nobel’s decisions

The death of Alfred Nobel led to a curious situation with regard to the institutions responsible for awarding the prizes, since Alfred Nobel appointed them without prior consultation with the institutions themselves on their acceptance or on the criteria for awarding the prizes.

However, after many doubts within these same institutions, they all accepted.

The Nobel Prize in Economics was not provided with funds based on the”Nobel Will” and is therefore technically not a Nobel Prize (and the current Nobel family does not accept it as such).

However, this prize is awarded together with the other Nobel Prizes. In 1968 it was decided not to add any more Nobel Memorial Prizes in the future.

In February 1995 it was agreed that the economics prize would be redefined as a social science prize, thus opening up the Nobel Prize to major contributions in fields such as political science, psychology, and sociology.

In addition, the economics prize committee was changed so that two non-economist members participated in the selection process each year (previously the prize committee was composed of only five economists).

The will of Alfred Nobel

As stated in the will of Alfred Bernhard Nobel:

“The totality of my remaining fortune will be disposed of as follows: the capital, invested in safe securities by my executors, will constitute a fund whose interest will be distributed each year in the form of prizes to those who, during the preceding year, have realized the greatest benefit to humanity.

These interests shall be divided into five equal parts, which shall be distributed as follows:

A part to the person who has made the most important discovery or invention within the field of physics; a part to the person who has made the most important discovery or improvement within chemistry.

A share of the person who has made the most important discovery in the field of physiology and medicine.

Part to the person who has produced the most outstanding work of idealistic tendency within the field of literature, and part to the person who has worked more or better for the brotherhood of nations, the abolition or reduction of existing armies and the celebration and promotion of peace processes.

The prizes for physics and chemistry will be awarded by the Swedish Academy of Sciences, the prize for physiology and medicine will be awarded by the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.

The Literature Committee, by the Stockholm Academy, and the Peace Defenders Committee, by a committee of five people elected by the Norwegian Storting (Parliament).

It is my express wish that, in awarding these prizes, the nationality of the candidates will not be taken into consideration, but that those who receive the prize, whether Scandinavian or not, will be the most deserving.”

Nobel Prize Medals

The Nobel Prize medals, minted by Myntverket in Sweden and the Norwegian Mint since 1902, are registered trademarks of the Nobel Foundation.

On all the medals there is an image of Alfred Nobel in left profile on the face of the medal.

The five Nobel Prize medals (Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, and Literature) have the same design on their front sides.

The reverse sides of the medals of the Chemistry and Physics awards share one design. Both sides of the Nobel Peace Prize and the Alfred Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics have unique designs.

Other awards

Some disciplines without Nobel Prize have instituted their own prizes, although not so well known.

Some of these awards include the following:

1. The Polar Music Award. 
2. The Prince of Asturias Awards.
3. The Fields Medal for Mathematics (awarded by the International Mathematical Union).
4. The Abel Prize for Mathematics (awarded by the King of Norway).
5. Pritzker Prize for architecture. 
6. Pulitzer Prizes for journalism. 
7. The Turing IT Awards.
8. The Wollaston Medal in Geology.
9. The Schock Award in logic. 
10. Philosophy. 
11. Mathematics. 
12. Visual arts 
13. Music. 

The Kyoto Awards 

These are granted by the Inamori Foundation and are divided into three categories:

1. Advanced Technologies. 
2. Basic Sciences.
3. Art and Philosophy. 
4. The Millennium Technology Award is an international award for outstanding technological achievements. 
5. The Prize for Good Livelihoods (known as the”Alternative Nobel Prize”) is awarded to people who make important contributions in fields such as environmental protection, peace, human rights, health, etc. 
6. In 2002, the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Prize, an international prize for children’s literature, was established in memory of Swedish children’s author Astrid Lindgren. 

The satirical Ig Nobel Prizes are a parody that annually rewards those Investigations that cannot or should not be repeated because this is what the Nobel’s will says.

Controversies and Curiosities about the Nobel Prize

Inconsistencies

While writers of the stature of Mark Twain, Marcel Proust, Henrik Johan Ibsen, James Joyce, Leon Tolstoy, Jorge Luis Borges, and Anton Chekhov never received the 1953 Nobel Prize for Literature, it went to Winston Churchill.

Ironically, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and yet Mahatma Gandhi (nominated five times) never received it.

In his case, it should be noted that two days before the 1948 awards ceremony he was assassinated and that year the prize was not awarded to anyone.

Rejections of Nobel Prize winners

Curiously enough, only two people have rejected a Nobel Prize: the French writer Jean-Paul Sartre and the Prime Minister of Viet Nam, Le Duc Tho in 1973, refusing to share it with Henry Kissinger.

The oldest and the youngest

The oldest winner is Russian-American Leonid Hurwicz (Economy Award 2007) and the youngest is Malala Yousaf-zai, a Pakistani girl shot for defending women’s education in her country.

Nobel Family

In 1903 a couple of Pierre and Marie Curie received the Nobel Prize in Physics, in 1911 Marie received it again for her research in the field of Chemistry (she was the only woman to receive two awards) and in 1935 her daughter Irene Joliot-Curie and her husband Frédéric Joliot received it for Chemistry.

Multi awardees

Linus Puling won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1954 and the Nobel Peace Prize in 1962 for his activism against nuclear testing.

John Barden received the Physics degree in 1956 for the invention of the transistor and in 1972 for discovering the theory of superconductivity.

The Red Cross has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize three times (1917, 1944, 1963) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 1954 and 1981.

Facts and curiosities about the Nobel Prize winners

The most prize-winning prize is the Nobel Prize in Physics, with a total of 106 laureates, although John Bardeen won it twice.

Although the Nobel prizes have been awarded annually since 1901, there are years when no prizes were awarded: 1916, 1940, 1941, 1942.

The prize that has been vacant the most times has been the Peace Prize. On 19 occasions it was not delivered.

The last category to join the Nobel Prize winners was Economics in 1968. It is also the only one that has never been deserted.

The categories with the most shared winners have been the Nobel Prize for Medicine 65 times and Physics 59 times.

If there is more than one winner, the prize money is divided equally among all winners.

The Nobel Prize can be awarded to both individuals and organizations, which has been the case only with the Nobel Peace Prize.

Watch your words: Laureates can’t improvise during the award ceremony, according to Randy Schekman, who was awarded for his research in cell transport in 2013.

The speech must be submitted to the Nobel Foundation more than 24 hours before it can be translated into Swedish.

Time in prison: Three laureates were in prison at the time of receiving the prize, all Nobel Peace Prize winners. German pacifist and journalist Carl von Ossietzky in 1935, Burmese politician Aung San Suu Kyi in 991 and Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaboo in 2010.

How much is it worth? 

Physics category winner Leon Lederman, who won in 1988 for his co-discovery of the muonic neutrino, sold his Nobel Prize earlier this year to pay for medical expenses.

The buyer, whose identity was not revealed, paid $765,000 for it. Only two Nobel Prizes have been sold during the winner’s lifetime. Both sales occurred this year.

Return policy: Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov paid $4.7 million to buy the Nobel medal from biologist James Watson for his work deciphering the double helix of DNA, but then returned the medal to the laureate.

He mentioned that the medal should remain with the winner and that the money he paid should be used for research.

The average age of the Nobel laureates, across all categories, is 59. The oldest winner was Leonid Hurwicz at 90, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics.

The youngest winner was Malala Yousafzai, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 at the age of 17.

Where’s my money? 

Adolf Hitler forbade three German laureates to accept the Nobel Prize? Richard Kuhn (Chemistry 1938), Adolf Butenandt (Chemistry 1939 t Gerhard Domagk (Physiology or Medicine 1939). Then they all went to get their medals and diplomas, but not the money.

Time of death: In the 1970s the Nobel Foundation decided that no more posthumous prizes would be awarded (two people who had already died had previously been awarded prizes).

However, in 2011 one of the winners of Physiology or Medicine, Ralph Steinman, died three days before the award was given. The Foundation decided not to rescind his Nobel Prize.

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