Home / Opinion / Views /  Mint Explainer: How the Nobel laureates are chosen

The Nobel prize is often considered the ultimate recognition of the stellar work of scientists, economists, authors and activists across the world. The last of the five Nobel prizes — for Peace — will be announced on 7 October this year, to be followed by the Swedish central bank’s Economics Sciences prize in memory of Alfred Nobel on 10 October.

Some of the most well-known Nobel laureates include Marie Curie (Physics, 1903; Chemistry, 1911), Ernest Rutherford (Chemistry, 1908), Albert Einstein (Physics, 1921), George Bernard Shaw (Literature, 1925), Red Cross (Peace, 1917, 1944, and 1963), Nelson Mandela (Peace, 1993) and John Nash (Economics, 1994). The list of celebrated achievers also includes 12 Indians or people of Indian origin, from Rabindranath Tagore (Literature,1913) to Mother Teresa (Peace, 1979), and, more recently, Abhijit Banerjee (Economics, 2019).

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How Nobel prizes came into being

The Nobel prizes are named after Swedish businessman Alfred Nobel who died in 1896. In his will, Nobel left behind his considerable fortune to reward and recognize intellectual and pioneering work in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and peace. The winners must be “those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind", Nobel wrote in his will, drafted a year before his death. The sixth award for economic sciences was added in 1968.

How the winners are chosen

Three Swedish institutions choose the winners in physics, chemistry, medicine and literature. The Oslo-based Norwegian Nobel Committee picks the peace prize winner. The Swedish central bank established the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel in 1968, and its winner is chosen by The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Every year, these institutions write to thousands of members of academies, university professors, scientists, previous Nobel laureates, legislators and others to nominate candidates for the Nobel prizes for the coming year. No one can nominate himself or herself for a prize. The nominators are selected to represent as many countries and universities as possible over time. After receiving all nominations, the Nobel Committees of the four prize-awarding institutions confer to shortlist and vote to select the ultimate winners.

The prize selection committees at the institutions include achievers, academics and outside experts. Every year, between February and October, the jury brainstorms extensively into the relevance of the work of nominees. The winners are selected by majority vote. The Nobel Foundation does not reveal the names of the nominees, shortlists or any other information about nominations for 50 years.

The controversies around the Nobel

Mahatma Gandhi was never awarded the peace prize, despite being nominated five times. Some media reports suggest the Nobel Committee found him a core “nationalist" and not quite a global statesman. In 1948, the year of Gandhi’s assassination, the Nobel Committee gave no award, stating “there was no suitable living candidate".

Einstein did not win the Nobel for his celebrated Theory of Relativity because the Nobel Committee believed his work was unproven at the time. Some believe Einstein, a Jew, may also have been a victim of the rise in antisemitism in that era. Faced with a crisis of credibility, the Nobel committee decided against awarding the physics prize in 1921 rather than giving it to Einstein’s work on relativity. Einstein eventually got the 1921 award in 1922 for his work on the photoelectric effect and not relativity. And because the Nobel is not awarded posthumously, Gandhi and Einstein can’t be recognized now. However, Barack Obama was felicitated with a peace prize very early in his presidency.

Elsewhere in Mint

In Opinion, Roopa Madhav & Asheerwad Dwivedi explain the risks of trading water on India's commodity exchanges. Indira Rajaraman writes on a star achievement of India's economy. Rohan Banerjee weighs the New Zealand law against official use of flowery language. Long Story tracks the local-train economy of West Bengal.

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