Nobel Prize

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Barack Obama with his Nobel Prize medal and diploma
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I feel I've done very well out of not getting a Nobel prize. If you get a Nobel prize you have this fantastic week and then nobody gives you anything else. If you don't get a Nobel prize you get everything that moves. Almost every year there's been some sort of party because I've got another award. That's much more fun.
—Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who discovered pulsars but whose supervisor won the Nobel[1]

A Nobel Prize is a really cool thing you get for being a scientist, a humanitarian, or someone else who adds significantly to the lives and knowledge of humanity — unless you're a mathematician or computer scientist.[note 1]

The prize was founded by the inventor of dynamite, Alfred Nobel.[2] After reading an obituary of himself, prematurely published by a French newspaper in 1884 and terming him a "merchant of death," he had a mild attack of conscience and sought to make amends. No, not by giving up the dynamite business, but instead using his wealth earned from manufacturing dynamite to endow the creation of the prizes upon his death in 1896.[3]

There are prizes for chemistry, physics, medicine, economics, and the controversial Peace Prize.

Notably, no young earth creationist "scientist" has ever managed to get any of these. However, hated liberals Al Gore (the only person ever to win an Oscar, a Presidential election, and a Nobel Peace Prize) and Jimmy Carter have.

People tainted by the foul aroma of nefarious deeds have also received Nobel Prizes: Henry Kissinger (a long list of war crimes, overthrowing of democratically elected governments, and complicity in various genocides and other crimes against humanity), Aung San Suu Kyi (Rohingya genocide), Mother Teresa (various), Yasser ArafatWikipedia (terrorism), and Peter Handke (genocide denialism) also got them. The Nobel Peace Prize can be viewed as something of an insult, no matter who you are.

In 2009, United States President Barack Obama was randomly selected from among just under seven billion people to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, which was being awarded that year to anyone who was not George W. Bush.

Current Prizes[edit]

The 5 prizes were established by Alfred Nobel in 1895 and first awarded in 1901. The Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences was created only in 1968, with the first prize in 1969; it was an idea originally conceived by Sweden's central bank (Sveriges Riksbank) to promote its tricentenary.[4][5]

  • Nobel Prize in Chemistry — Awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
  • Nobel Prize in Physics — Awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
  • Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine — Awarded by the Karolinska Institutet (the top-ranking medical university in Sweden)
  • Nobel Prize in Literature — Awarded by the Swedish Academy (but not "of Sciences")
  • Nobel Peace Prize — Awarded by a committee elected by the Norwegian Parliament.[6] The last point is often missed.
  • Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences — The Nobel Prize in Economics was established only in 1969, almost 70 years after the others. As a result, some people that adhere to fringe ideologies and economic denialism claim that it isn't an actual Nobel Prize. Nonetheless, the laureates are selected by The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (the same institution that selects the Nobel Prize in Physics and Chemistry[7]) according to the same principles as for the Nobel Prizes that have been awarded since 1901,[8] and the Nobel Foundation recognizes it as a Nobel Prize.[9]

Presumably the Norwegians got saddled with the task because, at the time Nobel came up with the peace prize, Norway was not a sovereign state and the Norwegian parliament was less likely to be entangled in foreign policy affairs that could influence the vote than the Swedish would have been. This is of course not the case anymore today and cries about "political" votes are almost as common as Nobel prizes themselves. Since 2012,[10] each prize is worth +7,500,000 Swedish kronor (1,100,000 USD).

The dismal science prize[edit]

Besides having been created by the Swedish National Bank as a birthday party favor,[4] the economics prize comes with substantial criticism. Unlike the other prizes in science (chemistry, physics, physiology), economics is not considered a "hard science", but is included among the social sciences, and consequently the field of economics is more subject to observer bias.

  • Human rights lawyer Peter NobelWikipedia a great-grandnephew of Alfred Nobel, criticized the creation of the prize. He stated that the prize was "a PR coup by economists to improve their reputation" and that Alfred despised people who valued profits over societal well-being.[4]
  • Friedrich Hayek criticized the prize even as he was awarded it in 1974, stating during his awards speech, "It is that the Nobel Prize confers on an individual an authority which in economics no man ought to possess. This does not matter in the natural sciences. Here the influence exercised by an individual is chiefly an influence on his fellow experts; and they will soon cut him down to size if he exceeds his competence. But the influence of the economist that mainly matters is an influence over laymen: politicians, journalists, civil servants and the public generally."[11] Hayek accepted the prize anyway because: Moolah!
  • Several of the prize recipients have been criticized for various reasons:
  • In 1994, following the awarding of the prize for work in game theory (John NashWikipedia), the scope of the economics prize was expanded to include all of the social sciences, which just increases the problematical nature of the prize since both economics[17] and psychology[note 3] have a reproducibility problem.

Only controversial when your brain isn't engaged[edit]

A black and white photo of a bearded man in his fifties sitting in a chair.

The Nobel Prizes in the natural sciences, particularly who are and who are not awarded one, sometimes generate controversy. The science prize panels are accused of sexism because Jocelyn Bell and Rosalind Franklin didn't receive a prize (although accusers won't mention Dorothy Hodgkin), and the fact that Charles Darwin never received the award is often used by creationists to question the validity of evolution by natural selection.

Even though the Prize is often awarded many years after the event or the original research was done, it cannot be awarded posthumously. Thus, both Franklin and Darwin didn't receive a Nobel Prize on account of being a corpse at the time, rather than a woman or wrong, respectively. In the case of Jocelyn Bell, who certainly was alive at the time, she had made observations of pulsars (and was credited as a second author of the relevant paper) but it was her academic supervisors who had put in the great amount of work in developing the aperture-synthesis technique. Prizes in the natural sciences are often given to individuals with the broadest scope of contributions, rather than just initial discoveries, so while Bell's lack of a prize was controversial and widely criticized by the astronomy community, it wasn't due to the assumptions at play among those who simply want to attack science.

Nominations and the fringe[edit]

The fact that the nomination process is pretty free and easy has led to some rather strange nominations, particularly for the Peace Prize. These include Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini, Fidel Castro,[18] Hugo Chávez, and Vladimir Putin.[19] Oh, and Donald Trump.

The secretive nature of the nomination process[20] has also opened up for willing cranks[21] to fraudulently claim that they've been nominated, when clearly, they have not been.

Politicization of the Peace Prize[edit]

Some deserving nominees never received the Prize, such as Mahatma Gandhi (for the Peace Prize) and Jorge Luis Borges (for literature). In Gandhi's case, the Nobel Committee's decision to not award a prize in 1948, as "there was no suitable living candidate," was, in effect, an award for Gandhi, as the prize is generally not given posthumously.[22] It was a rather lame excuse since Gandhi had been previously nominated in 1937, 1938, 1939, and 1947.[22] Just to rub in the hypocrisy of the Nobel committee, they had already a awarded a prize in literature to Sweden's Erik Karlfeldt in 1931, and would later award a posthumous peace prize to Dag Hammarskjöld in 1996.[23]

It has been alleged that the Peace Prize has been highly-politicized, particularly by the Catholic Church which has a keen interest in it.[24]:361-373 The committee has shown bias in favor of evangelical Christians by awarding peace prizes to people to people that few others had even heard of or did nothing to deserve it (self-promoting monk Dominique PireWikipedia in 1958 and Archbishop of Uppsala Nathan SöderblomWikipedia in 1930).[24]:367 The committee also has a history of appeasing the United States with what have been considered inappropriate awards (Theodore Roosevelt, George Marshall, Henry Kissinger).[24]:364-366[25] The subsequent protests against Kissinger's award resulted in what might have been the first appearance of the phrase "Ignobel Prize" in 1973.[24]:366

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. Mathematicians get the Fields Medal instead. As long as they're under 40. Computer scientists get the Turing Award.
  2. Sometimes cited as a reason for the lack of a Prize in mathematics is a story about Nobel's wife having an affair with a mathematician. It's just a story. Snopes says so. And Nobel never married.
  3. Daniel Kahneman in 2002 for integrating psychology into economics


  1. British astrophysicist overlooked by Nobels wins $3m award for pulsar work by Ian Sample (6 Sep 2018 00.01 EDT; Last modified on Thu 6 Sep 2018 05.01 EDT) The Guardian.
  2. Alfred Nobel and the History of Dynamite
  3. Nobel Prizes, 107 Years Old, Progressive Policy Institute
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Nobel descendant slams Economics prize (28th September 2005 12:24 CET) The Local (archived from October 14, 2007).
  5. The Riksbank’s Prize in Economic Sciences Sveriges Riksbank (archived from March 5, 2013).
  6. The Nobel Organizations,
  7. The Nobel Prize awarding institutions]
  8. The Sveriges Riksbank Prize In Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel
  9. Who we are and what we do
  10. For Nobel Winners, a Smaller Cash Prize, The New York Times
  11. Friedrich von Hayek: Banquet speech The Nobel Prize.
  12. The Nobel Factor: The Prize in Economics, Social Democracy, and the Market Turn by Avner Offer & Gabriel Söderberg (2016) Princeton University Press. ISBN 069116603X.
  13. The not so noble Nobel Prize by Samuel Brittan (19/12/03) The Financial Times (archived from June 30, 2009).
  14. "Letters to the Editor: The Laureate" (24 October 1976) The New York Times.
  15. Anti-Israel protests against Nobel prize award (11/Dec/2005 16:43) European Jewish Press (archived from December 15, 2010).
  16. Nobel Laureates at Cato Cato Institute.
  17. Chang, Andrew C., and Phillip Li (2015). “Is Economics Research Replicable? Sixty Published Papers from Thirteen Journals Say ”Usually Not”,” Finance and Economics Discussion Series 2015-083. Washington: Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System,
  18. Who Doesn't Have a Nobel Prize Nomination?, LA Times
  19. The World’s Worst Nobel Peace Prize Nominees: From Rush Limbaugh to Josef Stalin, we round up a rogue's gallery of the worst Nobel Peace Prize nominees. (10.10.13 5:45 AM ET) The Daily Beast.
  20. See the Wikipedia article on Nobel Peace Prize § Nomination and selection.
  22. 22.0 22.1 Mahatma Gandhi, the Missing Laureate
  23. Nobel prize to be awarded to dead scientist: Winner of the Nobel prize for medicine had passed away but rules state that award cannot be given posthumously by Ian Sample (3 Oct 2011 14.24 EDT) The Guardian.
  24. 24.0 24.1 24.2 24.3 Mother Teresa: The Untold Story by Aroup Chatterjee (2016) Fingerprint!/Prakash Books India. ISBN 9788175993310.
  25. Nobel panel knew Kissinger Vietnam deal unlikely to bring peace, files show: Accords negotiated by Kissinger and Le Duc Tho in 1973 sealed US exit from war but were soon flouted by North and South Vietnam (11 Jan 2023 12.28 EST) Reuters via The Guardian.