The Cult of the Nobel: Time for a Change

Announcement of the Nobel Prize laureate in literature (Photo Credit: Prolineserver, Wikimedia Commons)

Announcement of the Nobel Prize laureate in literature (Photo Credit: Prolineserver, Wikimedia Commons)

The dance around the golden Nobel medallion began in 1901 and remains strong to this day. Shrouded in secrecy and legend, the Prize first became an object for serious study after 1976, when the Nobel Foundation opened its fifty-year-old archives to researchers. Without such histories, critical debate and reflection on the meaning of the prize has lacked a fulcrum. By examining the process by which selections are made, it becomes possible to replace illusion with understanding. Analyses of committee deliberations, based on official records, private correspondence, diaries, and other archival resources, reveal a Nobel medallion etched with human frailties.[1]

The reasons for the cult behind the Prize are to be found not so much in its list of winners, but rather in the broader history of science and culture in the twentieth century. Indeed, the hold of the Prize on the twentieth-century imagination arises from the cumulative history of its uses. The oft-repeated claim that the Prize’s prestige reflects the awarding institution’s skill in picking the right winners simply does not hold up to inspection.[2]

From the very start, attention and interest in the award was keen. Naturally, the extraordinary amount of money drew attention. But equally important, the extravagant ceremony, including the participation of royalty, heads of state, and social elites appealed to hegemonic fin-de-siècle sensibilities. Pomp defined the circumstance – the occasion was a celebration of progressive civilization. In the early 1900s, Europeans and Americans were ready to believe in an impartial Olympics of culture. In an era when culture was assumed to be biologically determined, and when advanced races or nations competed peacefully to prove their level of social-Darwinistic “fitness,” this first international competition allowed nations to seek honor through contributions to the collective advancement of civilization. Mass media was especially attuned to such issues and played a critical role in both transforming the award ceremony into a public event and generating interest in the Prize among the public, government officials, and academic élites.

Winning a Prize has never been an automatic process, a reward that comes for having attained a magical level of achievement. Committee members’ own judgment, predilections, and interests enter into their decision-making. Some try to be dispassionate, while others champion their own cultural, political, and scientific agendas. But even when those involved strive to transcend partiality and overcome their own limitations, the task of selecting winners remains exceedingly difficult.

Committee members have privately confessed that occasionally several candidates equally deserve a prize; however, without objective criteria for selecting among them, committee members’ opinions and ability to advance one or another personal favorite necessarily proved decisive in deciding the recipient of the award. This has frequently been the challenge facing the chemistry committee, certainly during the first half of the twentieth century. Members of this committee bemoaned the lack of a candidate who stood head and shoulders above the others. Instead, a few candidates received relatively equal support from nominators, despite each being from a substantially differing sub-field and nominated for very dissimilar achievements.[3]

Such dilemmas surely face all Nobel committees. The presence of a strong-willed, eloquent, and knowledgeable individual on a given committee can make all the difference between candidates’ success and failure. At times, opinion can be so divided that if somebody catches a cold and misses a crucial vote, as was claimed by one committee member after several inconclusive rounds of voting for the 1950 medicine prize, an award’s outcome can change.[4]

Additionally, nominators rarely provide clear mandates. Committees have previously rejected strong consensus, such as that on Einstein’s theories of relativity in 1921 and 1922, which were an anathema to most committee members on scientific and cultural-political grounds.[5] The physics committee’s majority in the first decades of the prize embraced an experimentalist bias that valued precision measurement and experiment over theory, aiding some candidates and hurting others. Further, more than once a candidate with only one nomination has received a prize.[6]

Why do people esteem the Nobel Prize? No simple answer exists, other than the will to believe that the laureates constitute a unique population of the very best in science, literature, and the promotion of peace. The winners are by and large highly talented, but their elevation to the status of a peerless elite itself, standing qualitatively apart from all others, is not based on informed appraisal. The attention, authority, and privilege afforded to them are certainly sometimes warranted; but having won a Nobel Prize in itself remains a questionable standard.

It is asking too much of any selection process to define a single group as the alleged “best.” It has become clear that many important branches of science are not addressed by Alfred Nobel’s testament. Many environmental sciences are not eligible. Even within physics, chemistry, economics, and medicine, various sub-fields are either marginalized or rewarded largely based on the preferences of local Swedish committees. The strong record of bio-medical applications of chemistry during the interwar years represents committee bias, as does the eclipsing of contributions for advanced theoretical work, such as the strongly nominated contributions of G.N. Lewis. Indeed, Lewis’ case reveals how a brilliant career of first-rate contributions and of training new generations of cutting-edge researchers, but one lacking in a discovery that captures relevant committee members’ fancies, can result in a snub from Stockholm.

There is nothing wrong with wanting “heroes,” but we must understand the criteria used to select those whom we are asked to revere. The ever-growing fixation with Nobels and the increasing number of well-endowed parvenu prizes, often recruited for academic branding, political legitimation, and diplomatic posturing, results in absurdities.

So why the Nobel Prize? There is no comparable competition that has accrued over a century of ascribed meaning. Once the obsession began, cultural momentum wore down any criticism. More recently, committee practices have improved. Yet, the extraordinary growth in the number of scientists and scientific specialties, increasing number of talented writers (especially those in second- and third-world countries), and widening notions of what it means to contribute to “peace” make the task of selecting winners even more difficult than it was in the past. Regardless, excellence is much broader and deeper than the display of some golden medallions. As one of the physics committee members questioning the obsession with the Nobel asked, Why should we care so much about what a small handful of Swedes think?[7]

There is irony in the history of the Nobel Prize. Many of the early enthusiastic boosters of the Nobel cult saw the prize as a means to celebrate individual “genius,” in an age marked by the upper-class elites’ fear of a growing faceless “mass-society.” Yet, the prize enables universities and government agencies today to weigh in and measure alleged  “quality” based on relatively superficial indices. What does the number of laureates say about the overall quality of research? Of teaching programs? Of the quality of life at that institution or in that nation?

Whatever Alfred Nobel meant in awarding the prize to those who “benefit on mankind,” he certainly did not mean for the promotion of narrow professional interests, nor institutional and national boosterism. When will the media, university administrators, government officials, and diplomatic core take a sober stance and reduce the over-dimensioned ritual reverence for an imperfect icon? Chances are, not soon.



[1] The standard classics include, Elisabeth Crawford, The Beginnings of the Nobel Institution: The Science Prizes, 1901-1915 (Cambridge: CUP, 1984); Kjell Espmark, Det litterära Nobelpriset. Principer och värderingar bakom besluten (Stockholm: Norstedts, 1986); R.M. Friedman, “Nobel physics prize in perspective,” Nature (1981), 793-98; Friedman, “Text, context, and quicksand: Method and understanding in studying the Nobel science prizes,” Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences, 20, 1 (1989), 63-77; Friedman, The Politics of Excellence: Behind the Nobel Prize in Science (New York: Freeman & Holt, 2001). The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences is responsible for appointing Nobel committees and awarding prizes in physics, chemistry, and economics; the Swedish Academy for literature, Caroline Institution for medicine/physiology; the Norwegian Parliament (Stortinget) appoints the committee for peace, which functions autonomously.

[2] Such comments appear every now and then in official and non-official commentaries about the prizes. Even a cursory analysis of press coverage shows that from the earliest years the Prize emerged rapidly as the object of ritual media, public, political, and academic fascination. In spite of frequent disgruntlement over choices made, press coverage,  nominator participation, and public interest rarely waned. See, Crawford, The Beginnings; Friedman, The Politics of Excellence; Gustav Källstrand, Medaljens Framsida: Nobelpriset i pressen 1897-1911 (Stockholm: Carlssons, 2012).

[3] Friedman, The Politics of Excellence, pp. 26-39, 141-62, 225-50.

[4] Letter, Hugo Theorell to Sune Bergström, October 11, 1950, copy, H. Theorell papers, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences uses the language of a how if somebody sneezes the whole outcome could be altered.

[5] Friedman, “Nobel physics prize,” pp. 793-6; Politics of Excellence, pp. 119-140; further discussion and refinement of these earlier analyses of the biases among some committee members – scientific and otherwise – including those of Allvar Gullstrand who accepted responsibility to evaluate relativity and who in private admitted his intention that Einstein must never receive a Prize, is currently being prepared for publication. Some committee members followed and accepted in part some of the charges made beginning in 1920 by German extremist right-wing nationalists, including some physicists, against the socialist, internationalist Einstein, who was accused of being a plagiarist and charlatan and who was allegedly part of a Jewish conspiracy to foster relativity as a means to erode true German values and culture. For a nuanced and historically sensitive analysis of the German reactions to relativity at this time see, David E. Rowe, “Einstein’s allies and enemies: Debating relativity in Germany, 1916-1920,”Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, 251 (2006), 231-80.

[6]For example, C.G. Barkla in physics (1918); Arthur Harden (1929) and Harold Urey (1934) in chemistry.

[7] The issue is directly addressed in correspondence in 1970 between Iva Waller and the Japanese physics laureate Hideki Yukawa concerning the contributions of Soichi Sakata, see, Friedman, Politics of Excellence, pp. 265-6.


Dr. Robert Marc Friedman is a professor of the history of science at the University of Oslo. He is also a member of IAKH and the Max Planck Institute for History of Science, Berlin.

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