Do Nobel Prizes Do Any Good? Did They Ever?

Bizarre rules, corruption, morally indefensible winners: Explore Alfred Nobel’s flawed legacy.

December 10, 2018 5:00 am
The Nobel Prize medal of physicist Ferdinand Braun is presented by Wilhelm Fuessl, director of the archive of the Deutsches Museum, in Munich, Germany, 29 February 2016. (Marc Müller/picture alliance via Getty Images)
The Nobel Prize medal of physicist Ferdinand Braun is presented by Wilhelm Fuessl, director of the archive of the Deutsches Museum, in Munich, Germany, 29 February 2016. (Marc Müller/picture alliance via Getty Images)

“I can forgive Alfred Nobel for inventing dynamite, but only a fiend in human form could have invented the Nobel Prizes.”—George Bernard Shaw, winner of the 1925 Nobel Prize in Literature

On December 10, 1896, 63-year-old Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel died, but he had already ensured his name lived on. The inventor of dynamite left the overwhelming majority of his fortune to financing a series of prizes. (The Nobel Prize official website notes, “Not everybody was pleased with this.” Specifically, his relatives—they received only half a percent of his estate and battled the will for years.) The inaugural prizes were presented in 1901, and over a century later the world still turns each year to Scandinavia for the announcement of (as Alfred’s will specified) “prizes to those who, during the preceding year, have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind.” 

This is a highly worthy goal, but also one that is—if you think about it—borderline insane. Simply defining the “greatest benefit to humankind” could keep philosophers agonizing for the rest of existence. Nobel wanted these feats recorded and ranked once a year every year like clockwork. It was a task doomed to fall short more often than it hit the mark.

Yet the Nobel Prize had one thing going for it: Alfred’s huge pile of money. Even the Nobel Foundation doesn’t seem to know its full extent. They note Alfred’s assets included “revenues from his 355 international patents,” “substantial shareholdings in various mining companies,” and “a hundred or so ammunition and dynamite factories in Europe.”

Alfred decreed “the interest on [the fund] is to be distributed annually,” resulting in a prize that puts others to shame. The sum per category is currently just over a million dollars. (It shrank from $1.4 million in 2011 when its investment portfolio took a hit.) The Pulitzer Prize provides just $15,000. Even the MacArthur Fellowship “Genius” Grants only award $625,000 and that’s distributed over five years. 

Which is not to say that the Nobels necessarily pick the right people or go about selecting them the right way. Recently they saw one of their Peace Prize recipients seemingly endorse a genocide. And there’s no Nobel Prize in Literature at all this year in the wake of scandals involving everything from rigged bets on the winners to a rape conviction.

Since Alfred Nobel’s nest egg ensures his namesake awards will remain the prize of prizes for the foreseeable future, this is how they’re supposed to work and why they so often don’t. 

Where There’s a Will… Alfred Nobel’s father was an engineer/inventor who spent much of his life attempting to find better ways to destroy rocks. Alfred fulfilled that ambition when he mixed nitroglycerine with a fine sand, enabling him to create rods he dubbed “dynamite.” It quickly became clear his invention could be used on people as easily as stone. (Indeed, explosives killed his younger brother, Emil.) Alfred was defensive over this criticism and made a wildly incorrect prediction: “[D]ynamite will sooner lead to peace than a thousand world conventions. As soon as men will find that in one instant, whole armies can be utterly destroyed, they surely will abide by golden peace.” 

Alfred never married and apparently had no children. While he frequently traveled to visit his factories, he was reclusive and prone to depression. He was reportedly troubled when, upon the passing of his brother Ludvig in 1888, obituaries ran suggesting he had died, giving him a look at how the world viewed his legacy. These included a French notice declaring, “The merchant of death is dead.”

While he died years before the first Nobel Prize was given out, Alfred Nobel’s will laid out a number of conditions on how they should operate. He decreed there were to be five “parts” each year:

-“one part to the person who made the most important discovery or invention in the field of physics” 

-“one part to the person who made the most important chemical discovery or improvement” 

-“one part to the person who made the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine”

-“one part to the person who, in the field of literature, produced the most outstanding work in an idealistic direction” 

-“one part to the person who has done the most or best to advance fellowship among nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies, and the establishment and promotion of peace congresses”

Alfred Nobel also decreed who would pick his prizes: 

-Physics is determined by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. It currently consists of 615 total members: 440 Swedish and 175 foreign.

-The Royal Swedish Academy also selects the prize for Chemistry.

-Medicine is determined by the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet. There are 50 voting members, made up of professors at this Stockholm medical university.

-Literature is determined by the 18 members of the Swedish Academy. They serve for life. (Yes, this will prove significant later in our story.)

-The Nobel Peace Prize is awarded by the Norwegian Nobel Committee. The Norwegian parliament appoints its five members. While not required to be Norwegian, the Nobel website reports “all committee members have been.”

A sixth part was added in 1968. “The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel” is technically not a Nobel Prize, since Alfred didn’t include it in his will. Like Physics and Chemistry, it’s determined by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

There are three key rules that shape the process: 

-There can be years without a Prize for a category. (Counting 2018, this has occurred 50 times—World War II shut down everything in 1940, 1941, and 1942.) 

-“In no case may a prize amount be divided between more than three persons.”

-“A recipient need to be alive at the time of the announcement.” (Though they are free to die before the awards ceremony.)

Thus far the Nobel Prize has been awarded 590 times to 904 individuals—including four overachievers who won two of them—and 24 organizations. It goes without saying there have been many highly worthy winners, among them, the theoretical physicist Albert Einstein (Physics, in 1921), the poet William Butler Yeats (Literature, in 1923), and the civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. (Peace, in 1964).

But there have also been troubling trends and times when everything’s gone completely off track. Here are notable problems with the Nobel Prizes.

It’s a Small World (for the Nobels). The Nobel Prize is a global award but, by Alfred’s design, it remains primarily determined by Swedes (Sweden is currently 89th in the world in population with less than 10 million people) and Norwegians (Norway is 118th with just over five million). However, there are more than seven-and-a-half billion people on Earth. While the Nobels welcome input from the entire planet, the final decisions are essentially made by the people in two, mostly white neighboring European nations containing less than half a percent of the world’s population.  

This doesn’t translate into only Nordic victors. (Though, considering their size, both nations have batted above their weight: Sweden has 31 Nobel recipients and Norway has 13.) An overwhelming percentage of the winners do, however, come from a very small number of nations. The United States has 377 honorees, the United Kingdom 130, Germany 108, and France 69. That’s translates into two out of every three awards going to people from just four nations. No other country has reached 40. Outside of North America and Europe, Japan is tops with 28.

So there’s a concern that the Nobels neglect a good portion of the planet. But this is dwarfed by the gender gap.

It’s a Man’s World. Early in its existence, the Nobel Prize provided a genuinely inspiring moment for women in the sciences. In 1903, Marie Curie won the Nobel Prize in Physics, sharing the honor with two men, including her husband. After Pierre Curie’s death in 1906, she went on to be the sole winner of the 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Thus she became the first person to win two Nobel Prizes. (Three men have since matched this feat.)

By the time of Curie’s second win, women had also been awarded Nobel Prizes in Peace (Bertha von Suttner in 1905) and Literature (Selma Ottilia Lovisa Lagerlöf in 1909). But in the 117 years since, women have only collected 48 more Nobels. (Again, there are six prizes given out to up to three recipients each year.) In all, a women have won Nobel Prizes a total of 52 times, including Curie’s double dose. This works out to less than once every other year. No women were honored at all from 1967 to 1975.

The Nobels have acknowledged a bias against women. Gцran Hansson, vice chair of the board of directors of the Nobel Foundation, addressed the lack of female recipients in the sciences in 2017: “Part of it is that we go back in time to identify discoveries. We have to wait until they have been verified and validated, before we can award the prize. There was an even larger bias against women then. There were far fewer women scientists if you go back 20 or 30 years.” Hansson added, “But I’m not sure that’s the entire explanation.” He said outreach efforts would be increased to ensure they were aware of the efforts of female scientists all over the world.

Hansson alluded to another problem with the science prizes in general: Time.

Don’t Die Before the Prize. There are reasons to insist on the recipients of Nobel Prizes being alive. No one deserves one for Medicine more than Hippocrates, just as it’d be hard to argue against Shakespeare getting the nod in Literature. But Alfred Nobel wanted to honor those currently contributing to humanity—indeed, he was specifically interested in the “preceding year.” (On a more cynical note, corpses can’t attend all the festivities and banquets thrown to celebrate the Nobels each year.)

Sadly, science is slow. Discoveries take time. Then it takes more time to confirm their accuracy. Then it takes even more time for prize committees to realize that a vital piece of knowledge has been acquired and honor it. 

And it should go without saying that scientific breakthroughs are rarely achieved just by a single person. (Or, at most, a scientist and two colleagues.)

Take the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics given to Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne, and Barry Barish for detecting gravitational waves. There were a few contributors left out. How many? Weiss estimated 1,000: “It’s a dedicated effort that’s been going on for—I hate to tell you—it’s as long as 40 years, of people thinking about this, trying to make a detection and sometimes failing in the early days, then slowly but surely getting the technology together to do it.”  

The astrophysicist Sir Martin Rees praised all three victors but blasted the Nobels themselves: “The fact that the Nobel Prize 2017 committee refuses to make group awards is causing increasingly frequent problems.” The Atlantic offered even harsher criticism with an article titled “The Absurdity of the Nobel Prizes in Science.” (“They distort the nature of the scientific enterprise, rewrite its history, and overlook many of its most important contributors.”)

The Nobels not only pick the few to get credit but sometimes apportion a share of the glory. It was decreed that Weiss would get half of the Physics money in 2017, while Thorne and Barish would each receive only a quarter. 

It should be noted a fourth physicist, Ron Drever, had worked closely with Thorne and Barish. He had as much of a claim as either on the Prize, but died earlier in 2017, making him ineligible and letting the Nobels continue to obey their rule of three. 

Of course, there’s a deeper question about science that the Nobels also often ignore.

Did They Harm More Than Help? Alfred Nobel clearly saw his prizes as rewarding those who bettered humanity. With that in mind:

Fritz Haber won the 1918 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his efforts to help mass produce fertilizer. But by the time he collected it, he was working on a decidedly non-agricultural project, which is why today he is known as the father of chemical warfare. Smithsonian Magazine notes his work during World War I enabled Germany to kill thousands via a method causing “a splitting headache and terrific thirst (to drink water is instant death), a knife edge of pain in the lungs and the coughing up of a greenish froth off the stomach and the lungs, ending finally in insensibility and death.” 

What about António Egas Moniz? He earned the 1949 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for pioneering lobotomies. Lobotomies fell from fashion when it was realized they can change a person’s personality or even rob them of personality altogether. That’s what happened to John F. Kennedy’s sister Rosemary after she was lobotomized by Walter Freeman, the former partner of Moniz. Freeman at one point performed up to 25 lobotomies a day, all conducted with an instrument resembling an ice pick and no use of anesthesia. (Of course, perceptions sometimes change for the better: It’s increasingly believed lobotomies can offer real medical benefits, after all.)

Okay, we’ve established science is complicated while the Nobel Prizes like to be simplistic. Let’s shift to two areas that seem more straightforward: Literature and Peace. These are the categories the general public can skim the list of winners and occasionally recognize a name. (Hey, it’s Bob Dylan!)

These prizes seem like they should run more smoothly. All too often, they do not.

What Do You Want From a Book? Here are two groups:

Group 1. Jorge Luis Borges, Leo Tolstoy, Edith Wharton, Vladimir Nabokov, Mark Twain, James Joyce.

Group 2: Sully Prudhomme, Rudolf Eucken, Verner von Heidenstam, Frans Sillanpää, Eyvind Johnson, Harry Martinson. 

Group 1 consists of writers eligible for a Nobel Prize in Literature who didn’t win one. 

Group 2 is a list of those who did.

In fairness, you might also make some weird picks if tasked with interpreting the directives of Alfred Nobel. He instructed the selection should be “the person who, in the field of literature, produced the most outstanding work in an idealistic direction.” He also noted that he wanted his prizes focused on the “preceding year.” Taken together, that suggests an award for a writer both “idealistic” and coming off a work of great significance in the last 12 months.

Yet sometimes obvious picks are ignored. Take Philip Roth, who died at 85 in 2018. His novella Goodbye, Columbus received the U.S. National Book Award way back in 1959. He then produced dozens of novels over the next 50 years, finally ceasing to publish with 2010’s Nemesis. During his career, he won the Pulitzer and every other literary prize known to man…except for the Nobel Prize. No matter that he had continued to produce strong work into his 70s. A cynic would argue Roth was snubbed because Literature is the one category where Americans are traditionally underrepresented. After Toni Morrison in 1993, the U.S. entered a two-decade drought. 

Or maybe it’s because Roth’s work was insufficiently “idealistic” (admittedly, not a word one uses when describing Portnoy’s Complaint). But if that’s what voters seek, shouldn’t J.K. Rowling have given an acceptance speech already? Argue about the literary merits of the Harry Potter series all you want, but it’s inspired millions of children to read and shaped a lot of young (and not so young) minds in a myriad of ways.

So no Nobel for Roth. And with popular/children’s authors rarely recognized, it’s unlikely Rowling will ever get it either.

Yet Robert Zimmerman has one.

Dylan’s 2016 honor is not completely without precedent. One of his musical heroes, the country great Hank Williams, received a special Pulitzer Prize citation in 2010—it was a little delayed, in the sense Hank died in 1953. This Nobel’s timing was equally befuddling. Dylan’s autobiography Chronicles: Volume One had been celebrated—as well as criticized when readers discovered the book “sampled” hundreds of other works ranging from H.G. Wells to old issues of Time magazine without giving credit—but it was released way back in 2004. Indeed, Dylan had essentially stopped writing altogether at this point, including musically. He released albums in 2015, 2016, and 2017—all of them covering others’ songs.

No one seemed more baffled by the pick than Dylan himself. He skipped the ceremony and only agreed to pick up his medallion months later. (He was in Stockholm anyway for a couple of concerts.) 

It’s worth asking: What the hell did this prize accomplish? Even critics of the Nobel Prizes might concede there are worse things to do with money than give it to scientists, humanitarians, and authors—three professions that tend not to bring big bucks. Likewise, a Nobel Prize can bring attention to a figure who is highly deserving but largely unknown. 

Bob Dylan has been a global celebrity since the 1960s. It’s also been a long time since he needed to work on Maggie’s farm—he has sold over 40 million albums and Forbes reported his touring generates up to $12 million each year.

But while the Dylan pick is questionable, at least it seems to have been made in good faith. More troubling was the joint win by Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson in 1974. Both are Swedish writers little known outside of their homeland, then as now. Both were also members of the Swedish Academy, which selects the Nobel Prize in Literature.

This was scandalous, but just a warmup for what the Academy is currently experiencing.

Literature Gets Lawless. As noted, the Swedish Academy awards the Nobel Prize in Literature. Until recently, the poet Katarina Frostenson was an active member of the Academy. She is married to Jean-Claude Arnault, a French arts promoter. It appears Arnault was able to get the names of winners in advance through his wife and then bet on them.

Wait, it gets much worse! Eighteen women have accused Arnault of sexually harassing or assaulting them. After he was found guilty of rape, Arnault appealed the conviction and wound up being found guilty of an additional count of rape, adding six months to his two-year sentence. (He reportedly plans to continue appealing, presumably stopping only when his conviction is upgraded all the way to the death penalty.)

Confronted with her husband’s misconduct (and her own for that matter), Frostenson initially refused to resign her post. This was troubling, because Nobel board members enjoy a lifetime appointment. Her stance inspired three members to resign in protest. The end result: No Nobel Prize in Literature in 2018. Theoretically two Prizes will be announced in 2019.

All right, so that’s all pretty depressing. Which takes us to Peace.

The Presumptive Approach. On October 9, 2009, Barack Obama was announced as the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. He had been U.S. President for less than eight months. It gets crazier: The deadline for nominations is February of that year, meaning his candidacy was based on maybe a week in office.

Of course, Obama had one thing going for him: He wasn’t George W. Bush. His predecessor’s invasion of Iraq had infuriated much of the planet. The result was a willingness to take a leap of faith on Obama.

Alfred Nobel wanted the Peace Prize given to the person “who has done the most or best to advance fellowship among nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies, and the establishment and promotion of peace congresses.” How did Obama do? We’ll never know Alfred’s exact feelings, but it’s unlikely he would have endorsed Obama’s embrace of drone warfare or his “surge” in Afghanistan.

And if Obama’s win is debatable…

Seriously, Why’d These People Win? Understandably, the Nobel Peace Prize puts a heavy emphasis on leaders who make peace. But should that cause us to overlook all their other actions? Controversial choices include:

Henry Kissinger in 1973. It was a first: After the pick, two members of the Nobel Committee left in protest. Why? They didn’t believe peace should come courtesy of a Christmas bombing campaign (which Nixon utilized in late 1972 to put pressure on the North Vietnamese). Kissinger also orchestrated the U.S.’s four-year-long secret bombing of Cambodia from 1969 to 1973, which killed between 50,00 and 150,000 civilians. That bombing is also credited with fueling the rise of the notorious Khmer Rouge regime, which murdered two million Cambodians in its “killing fields.” Kissinger’s Nobel was shared with North Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho, who rejected the Prize, arguing the truce he negotiated had been violated. The decades that followed have revealed Kissinger to be all too comfortable with questionable casualties all over the world. One example: Declassified documents reveal he knew about and tacitly endorsed Argentina’s “Dirty War” in the 1970s.

F.W. de Klerk in 1993. The South African President was honored along with Nelson Mandela “for their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa.” Yet even after the Prize was announced, de Klerk apparently was willing to overlook state hit squads. Eugene de Kock—an assassin known as “Prime Evil” who wound up serving 20 years for his crimes—insists de Klerk actually ordered the political killings.

Aung San Suu Kyi in 1991. At the time of her victory, she was under house arrest. Unfortunately for the credibility of the Nobel Peace Prize, she eventually got to leave the house. Today, Suu Kyi is the State Counsellor of Myanmar, effectively the head of state. From this lofty position, the woman honored for “her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights” has watched as Myanmar’s military commits a genocide. At least 700,000 Muslim Rohingya have been forced to flee the country. There have been tens of thousands of deaths as well as gang rapes. 

She hasn’t attacked these atrocities. Indeed, she defended the military last year with the baffling statement: “I think it is very little-known that the great majority of Muslims in the Rakhine State have not joined the exodus. More than 50 percent of the villages of Muslims are intact.” (Based on basic math, this suggests nearly half the Muslim villages were wiped out.)

Olav Njoelstad, the secretary of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, rejected efforts to strip her of the prize: “It’s important to remember that a Nobel prize, whether in physics, literature, or peace, is awarded for some prize-worthy effort or achievement of the past.”

In conclusion…

Awards: What Are They Good For?

Many, many people would love to win a Nobel Prize, but Donald Trump is one of the few willing to openly admit it. Nominated for a Peace Prize after the Singapore summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, Trump was asked if he deserved it. He oh-so-humbly mused, “Everyone thinks so, but I would never say it.” 

When Trump’s candidacy sputtered out with the revelation North Korea has continued its nuclear program, he said he viewed the Nobels as just another organization determined to snub him: “They’ll never give it to me. We should have gotten the Emmy for The Apprentice, you know? I had the No. 1 show, The Apprentice.” (Note: The Apprentice was never the #1 show: Its season ratings ranged from #5 after its first season to #113, after Trump’s 10th and final season.)

Trump can find solace in knowing that he doesn’t need a Nobel Prize any more than Bob Dylan did—he has a solid rainy day fund and surely the world already knows his name. Ultimately, the Nobel Prizes do one thing uniquely well: They shine a spotlight on those previously unseen. Why not, for instance, bring the Italian satirist Dario Fo worldwide attention? (As happened when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, more than 40 years after his career began.)

Quite simply, Nobel Prizes tend to have the biggest impact on the occasions they go small. The Nobels were at their noblest in 2014 when they honored Malala Yousafzai with the Peace Prize. (She shared it with Kailash Satyarthi.) They recognized someone from a gender, country (Pakistan), and, for that matter, age group (Malala was only 17 when she accepted the Prize) all too often ignored. 

Malala was saluted for her “struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.” She paid a heavy personal price for supporting education for girls, having barely survived being shot in the head on Taliban orders. But she persists: Today the Malala Fund seeks to shatter “the barriers preventing more than 130 million girls around the world from going to school.”

During her Nobel Lecture, Malala joked about her youth—“I am pretty certain that I am also the first recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize who still fights with her younger brothers”—while recognizing a movement that goes far beyond her: “This award is not just for me. It is for those forgotten children who want education. It is for those frightened children who want peace. It is for those voiceless children who want change.”

That’s a moment the Nobels got it very right. This article covered other occasions when it went wrong. And much of the time it falls somewhere in the middle: An acceptable, if flawed, attempt to fulfill the wishes—and thereby absolve the guilt—of a long dead Swede. The winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics, Saul Permutter, put the prize’s all-too-often mundane impact nicely in perspective: “Probably the single most important thing about winning a Nobel Prize for most people is whether they get the coveted parking space on campus.”

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