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image European Research News Centre > Research and Society > The Nobel Prize: 1901-2001
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image image image Date published : 02/10/2001
  image The Nobel Prize: 1901-2001
  Robert Koch and his bacillus, Alexander Fleming and antibiotics, Thomas Morgan and his studies on the drosophila fly, Prusiner and the prion, Charpak and the exploration of the most minute particles of matter... Many advances in science are inextricably linked to the names of Nobel prizewinners. As it celebrates its centenary, we take a look behind the scenes of this renowned institution.

AN INVETERATE traveller, his motto is a familiar one: 'My home is where I work - and I work everywhere'. Born in Sweden in 1833, Alfred Nobel spent his childhood in St. Petersburg, made his industrial mark in Hamburg, settled in Paris, and died in San Remo, one 10 December, the day on which the Nobel Prizes for Physics and Chemistry continue to be awarded.

A misanthrope sensitive to the ills of the world, a melancholic with more than a touch of irony, a pacifist who earned his fortune from explosives, Alfred Nobel led a strange life. Following an initial innovation based on nitro-glycerine, Nobel went on to accumulate a huge number of patents (355 to his name) and factories (about a hundred), and a considerable fortune, all the while harbouring the hope of one day discovering a substance or a device with sufficient destructive power to banish war for ever.

Science and humanism

His desire was to reward those who 'have brought the greatest benefits to mankind', through their work in fields as diverse as the sciences, literary creation and peace-making. The prizes for physics and chemistry were to be awarded by the Swedish Academy of Sciences, the physiology and medical prizes by the Karolinska Institute, and the literature prize by the Stockholm Academy. As to the peace prize, that was to be awarded outside Nobel's home country, as he preferred to entrust it to the Norwegian Parliament, the Storting, 'one of the few genuinely democratic assemblies in Europe', while the 'prize for economic sciences in memory of Alfred Nobel' was created in 1968 by the Swedish Central Bank.

And mathematics? Conspicuously absent - but not the mathematicians themselves. Most of them have been rewarded for physics (Lorentz, Planck, Einstein), some for economics (Tinbergen, Kantorovich, Nash), or even literature (Russell). As a fine example of disciplinary interaction, two mathematicians, Walter Kohn (USA) and John Pople (UK), were awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry (1998) for having enabled chemists to apply Schrödinger's quantum equation (concerning particles) to the behaviour of molecules.

Discretion assured

The procedure for awarding all these prizes is the same. The various institutions responsible elect a committee which, every year, invites experts and institutions from different countries to select a number of candidates (nobody can put his own name forward) whose merits are then considered by the committee members, aided by experts. They then submit a list of names (rarely more than five) to the Nobel body charged with judging them. The discussions are held in secret. In 1974, however, the Nobel Foundation changed its rules to allow a few science historians to study its archives.

The value of the prizes changes from year to year depending on the revenue earned by the Nobel Foundation, which manages a legacy that was worth 32 million kronor at the end of the last century. Since 1987, the general public have been able to buy into this capital by acquiring shares and bonds, this permitting a very rapid rise in the value of the Foundation's assets. Before this, in 1962, the Italian-Swiss International Balzan Foundation had awarded its first prize, worth 1 million Swiss francs, to the Nobel Foundation, and in 1972, Georg von Békésy, the 1961 Nobel prizewinner for medicine, had left all his fortune to the Foundation. In 1901 a Nobel Prize was 150 800 kronor. Today it is worth 10 million kronor.

Although those responsible for managing the Nobel fortune certainly seem to have been perceptive, what about the juries? A quick glance at the names of the Nobel prizewinners for medicine, for example, leaves no room for doubt. Throughout the years, the names of the prizewinners are inextricably linked to major advances in scientific knowledge. Tuberculosis and Robert Koch,
vitamin C and Albert Szent-Györgyi, antibiotics and Alexander Fleming, the world of cells explored by Albert Claude and Christian René de Duve, the drosophila fly (one of the keys to genetics), a host of researchers working on DNA… the list is long.

Erring on the side of caution?

Yet for all that, the choices of the scientific juries are not altogether immune from criticism. Excessive caution is the charge sometimes levied when a Nobel Prize goes to already acclaimed figures whose work is well-established. Wilhelm Röntgen, who discovered X-rays in 1895, received many awards before being distinguished by the Swedish Academy in 1901. More recently (1988), the physicist Léon Lederman, rewarded for a discover he had made 20 years previously, commented that his Nobel Prize had 'had the time to mature'. The juries are also sometimes criticised for trying to make good past oversights, such as in 1921 when they honoured Einstein, not for the principle of relativity formulated back in 1905, but for clearly less significant work on the photoelectric effect and Brownian motion.

Some choices have also raised ethical questions, for example when Fritz Haber, Nobel laureate in 1918, admitted having been one of the principal supporters of the use of gases for military purposes. The list of Nobel prizewinners also includes very few women, particularly in the field of sciences. Out of 457 Nobel laureates, just 11 are women. The first woman to win the award was Marie Sklodowska Curie (1903), and the most recent the German biologist Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard (1995).

Another laureate is Irène Joliot-Curie (1935), the daughter of two prizewinners. This is not the only example of prizewinning running in the same family, with father and son teams being particularly prominent, such as Joseph John Thomson and George Paget Thomson (two British physicists), Hans von Euler-Chelpin and Ulf von Euler (chemist and physiologist), Niels and Aage Bohr (Danish physicists), and Sir William Lawrence Bragg of Great Britain who was just 25 years old when he shared a Nobel with his father William Henry Bragg (1915).

Then there are the 'master-pupil' connections, with no fewer than 12 former students of Ernest Rutherford (chemistry, 1908) going on to win a Nobel themselves. Certain universities (in particular Cambridge and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US) also seem to be a breeding ground for Nobel prizewinners, while an impressive number of Nobel prizewinners have worked at CERN (the European laboratory for particle physics, in Geneva): Felix Bloch, Samuel Ting, Carlo Rubbia and Simon Van der Meer, Jack Steinberger, Georges Charpak; it is beginning to look a bit like a club.


Guided tours

Nobel Museum, Björkborn Manor, Sweden

The Big Idea, Ardeer, Glasgow
Exhibition on a century of discoveries and Nobel Prizes

Cultures of Creativity: The Centennial Exhibition of the Nobel Prize
until the end of December 2001 - Norsk Folkemuseum, Oslo

Internet site



Nobel and bar

Marie Curie is not the only
person to have been awarded two Nobel Prizes. Linus Pauling received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1954 and later the Nobel Peace Prize in 1962. This scientist devoted the latter half of his life to campaigning for nuclear disarmament - playing an important role in adopting the 1963 international treaty banning nuclear testing in the atmosphere.

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The price of fame

Just one man's opinion?
'Starting out from nothing, we have become like film stars. We have been subjected to what can only be called torture. We are not used to this public life which prevents us from continuing with our work.

Our lives have been thrown into turmoil.' (André Lwoff,
Nobel Prize for Medicine, 1965).

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Making a mockery

Are some scientists secret surrealists? Every year, at Harvard University, a scrupulously formal ceremony is held to award the Ig Nobel (read ig-noble), in recognition of goofy ideas and flights of fancy. Exclusively in the field of science and technology.

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