The Nobel Prize, Alfred Nobel’s controversial legacy

Today, the 10th of October, is the announcement of the Nobel Prize in Economics (The Sveringes Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel), the fifth of six awards of the annual Nobel Prize.

The former Stock Exchange Building in Gamla Stan, where the Nobel Museum and Swedish Academy reside

Strictly speaking Alfred Nobel did not will a prize in Economics in his last will and testament, but that’s being pedantic. The Nobel Prize is awarded in the fields of Physics, Chemistry, Physiology & Medicine, Economics, Literature and Peace to individuals who have made “outstanding contributions for humanity in chemistry, economics, literature, peace, physics, or physiology & medicine.”

Among the scientific awards of the Nobel Prize tend to have been for research that has been tested and that has opened new vistas of human knowledge. From florescence

to chromosome shortening (as we age) by telomeres,

from the accelerating expansion of the universe,

to radiation left over after the big bang (cosmic radiation).

The Nobel Prize (particularly the Peace Prize) is however a controversial one because it is a consequential one. News of the Nobel Prize reverberates throughout the world from New York to New Dehli, from Santiago to Singapore. As such the decision of the body always raises as much controversy as it does concurrence. This years’ Peace Prize was again considered more controversial than usual.

Many deserving winners are missed out on such as Rosalind Franklin.

So how did the Nobel Prize begin?

It was an afternoon after a difficult week, where an explosion in his munitions factory occurred and took his brother with it. Alfred Nobel opened the newspapers and read an obituary. The obituary was however not for his brother, but written mistakenly for him.  It condemned him of profiting off an industry of death – the sale of arms. People didn’t like Nobel. He developed dynamite. It was meant for development but became a harbinger of death.

So he decided to change his pungent notoriety into a fragrant legacy by naming a prize after himself that would be awarded to the highest levels of achievement in science, culture and peace.

Being of Swedish nationality, Alfred Nobel willed that a number of Swedish and Norwegian organisations would decide on who would win these awards. The Literature Prize is awarded by the Swedish Academy; Chemistry, Physics and Economics Prize by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences; Physiology/Medicine by the Nobel Committee at Karolinska Institutet and the Peace Prize by the Norwegian Nobel Committee appointed by the Norwegian Parliament. Norway and Sweden were then a in a personal union under the same monarch.

The Nobel Forum at Karolinska Institutet

Over the 115 years of its history, the Nobel Prize has come to be seen as the pinnacle award in human knowledge, the person who wins the prize is seen as the pride of his nation and a master of her field. Their words now receive the weight and consideration only a prestigious award could give. In a way nerds are turned into heroes, in a celebration of the collective wealth that scientific and cultural knowledge creates.

Tu YouyouTu Youyou, the discover of Artemisinin – the drug used against Malaria, Nobel Laureate in Physiology/Medicine 2015

These laureates (particularly the scientist) become more than award winners. They go from senior scientist to scientific communicators to the non-academic world. One of the most well known ones is Sir Paul Nurse.

After the announcement in October, the laureates are invited to give Lectures on their work at the Nobel Lecture in early December as a part of celebrations of the Nobel Week. Here is a video of the Nobel Lecture in Physiology and Medicine by Edvard and May-Britt Moser and John O’Keefe.

Other programmes may also be held particularly for the students in the universities in Stockholm and nearby Uppsala.

The celebrations culminate in a grand ceremony is held on the 10th of December (the death anniversary of Alfred Nobel) at the Stockholm City Hall and the Oslo City Hall (for the Peace Prize).

Here’s a video of the 2014 Ceremony in Oslo.

Almost all of this is organised by the Nobel Foundation, a private institution set up by Alfred Nobel to manage the award after his death. The foundation has recently begun a push to modernise and popularise the prize, with the aim, according to writer Lukasz Swiatek, “to inspire and educate audiences – particularly young people – and not just transmit information about the prizes and laureates.”

A small museum was set up in the Gamla Stan with the aim of making the museum a “reflecting and go-ahead spirited memory of the Nobel laureates and their achievements as well as of the Nobel Prize and Alfred Nobel”

The small museum is free on Tuesday evenings (which is when the vast majority of people attend).

There are fixed exhibitions which consists of a straight platform showing the history of the award and the works that made the eventual winners, winners.

Above, the Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine 1945 awarded to Alexander Fleming, Ernst Chain and Howard Florey for the discover of Penicilin

The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling who was award theNobel Prize in Literature in 1905, “in consideration of the power of observation, originality of imagination, virility of ideas and remarkable talent for narration that characterize the creations of this world-famous author”

 A symbolic piece of the Berlin wall. The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Mikhail Gorbachev in 1989, then President of the Soviet Union, “for his leading role in the peace process which today characterizes important parts of the international community.”

There are also temporary exhibitions, the most recent being Experiments showing the work of the Nobel Laureates in interactive detail.

The prize is perhaps an example of the good that can come out of bad.

Other prizes have emerged that have all been compared to the Nobel (showing the preeminence of this prize) including the Lasker Award – commonly called the American Nobel and the mini-Nobel and the Ramon Mangsaysay Award given Asians for “Outstanding contributions in Government Service, Public Service, Community Leadership, Journalism, Literature and Creative Communication Arts, Peace and International Understanding and Emergent Leadership”

The prize is controversisl and its critics (here and here) are many. One of the biggest bugbears to the scientific prizes are that they are not updated for how science is conducted today. In an interview with the Guardian, Martin Rees an astrophysicist from Cambridge said,

It’s certainly true that the prizes fail to recognise achievements in huge swaths of science that have grown in importance in the century since they were set up.

Moreover, the limit to three winners is becoming less appropriate. Much of experimental and observational science (and even some theoretical work) involves a group effort. There have been several recent instances when singling out three (or less) winners has not only been unfair but has given the public a distorted perspective of how science is actually done.

Fortunately, there has in the last 10-20 years been a proliferation of other international prizes, some of which are prepared to make awards to groups (and to cover ‘Non-nobel’ subjects). One hopes that this will gradually erode the special prestige of the Nobels.

This video gives a very good summary of the broad criticisms over this prize, not every criticism is fair (in my view).

Still, in spite of its flaws, it is an meaningful prize and a noble intention – to award efforts to improve humanity. I personally hope that a day comes when the Peace Prize becomes obsolete and the day never comes when we think the other Prizes are obsolete.

What do you think about the Prize?


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