A Look at the Nobel Prize
By “Awake!” Correspondent in Sweden
MANY persons throughout the world regard a Nobel prize as the greatest and most honorable recognition a person can receive. The history of this world-renowned prize goes back to Alfred Bernhard Nobel, who was born in Sweden in 1833.
Alfred Nobel amassed a huge fortune due to epoch-making inventions in the field of explosives. He studied especially the temperamental high explosive nitroglycerine, finding it safer to handle this when it was combined with another substance. In 1867 Nobel patented such a mixture called dynamite.
Many other inventions in the field of explosives technique, as well as chemical contributions in other fields, made Nobel immensely wealthy. He became owner of 355 patents and built up a worldwide industry involving 80 companies in 20 countries on five continents. Few knew him personally during his lifetime. But as far as his name is concerned, Nobel is possibly the best-known Swede who ever lived. He died at San Remo, Italy, on December 10, 1896.
What, though, is the origin of Nobel prizes? The famous Swedish inventor provided for these in his will, where he stated: “The whole of my remaining realizable estate shall be dealt with in the following way: the capital, invested in safe securities by my executors, shall constitute a fund, the interest on which shall be annually distributed in the form of prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.”
Nobel stipulated that there would be five prizes of equal amount, one for each of five fields: physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and fraternity among nations. The latter became the well-known Nobel peace prize.
Interesting is the comment of Swedish biographer Ake Ohlmark as to why Nobel provided in his will for these prizes: “He knew that many of his most epoch-making inventions would become tools of violence and war. . . . The Nobel Prizes are an expression of the pangs of conscience of a great researcher and organizer. He intended that the prizes and the institutions which would be created by them would to some degree heal the damage which he knew that his inventions would cause.”—Nobelpristagarna (“Nobel Prize Winners”).
The awarding of Nobel prizes began in 1901. During the past 76 years 330 prizes have been awarded. The others were not given out, mostly due to lack of eligible candidates, especially for the peace prize. Each prize consists of a diploma, a gold medal and a check, which in 1976 totaled $163,300 in American currency.
Selecting the Candidates
How does one qualify for a Nobel prize? Nomination of Nobel “laureates,” that is, persons considered worthy of special honors in the five designated fields, is handled by four institutions, three of them Swedish. In the wording of Nobel’s will: “The prizes for physics and chemistry shall be awarded by the Swedish Academy of Sciences; that for physiological or medical works by the Caroline Institute in Stockholm; that for literature by the Academy in Stockholm, and that for champions of peace by a committee of five persons to be elected by the Norwegian Storting [Parliament].”
Each of these institutions has a special five-member committee to do the preparatory work for selecting prize candidates. Every year these committees send invitations to hundreds of scientists, members of academies, and university scholars throughout the world. The invitations request nominations of persons viewed as qualifying for the prizes to be awarded the next year. Nominations must be in by February 1 of the year in which the prize will be awarded.
By early autumn, these investigations result in secret reports by the committees to the prize-awarding institutions. Then a vote is taken for the final choice, which is kept secret until October or November. The decisions are final and cannot be appealed.
Some Problems in Awarding Prizes
The awarding of Nobel prizes over the years has presented some problems. Nobel stated in his will: “It is my express wish that in awarding the prizes no consideration whatever shall be given to the nationality of the candidates, but that the most worthy shall receive the prize, whether he be a Scandinavian or not.” However, locating those “most worthy” is made difficult by the worldwide scope of Nobel prize distribution.
Recent choices for the peace prize have come under criticism and produced much strife, mostly for political reasons. In 1973, for instance, the two chief negotiators at the Vietnam Conference in Paris were selected to share the peace prize. Protests were voiced throughout the world. Two members of the Peace Committee in Oslo gave notice of resignation and one of the two selected for the prize declined it. When the other accepted, a protest movement in Norway collected 1.5 million Norwegian kroner ($270,750) as a “People’s Peace Prize,” which they awarded to a person of their own choice. Sadly, no winner of any Nobel peace prize has really moved mankind in the direction of world peace.
Similarly, stormy circumstances have attended the prize for literature. Scholars have protested the selection at times of relatively unknown authors with few readers, whereas world-famous authors have been neglected. When Leo Tolstoy was not selected in 1901, forty-two Swedish authors protested by sending a letter of apology to Tolstoy.
As for awarding prizes in scientific fields, the tendency today for teams of scientists, rather than individuals, to carry out research makes it difficult to select who gets the prize. And since scientific development has been so rapid in recent years, prize awarders must work extra hard to keep up with the very latest achievements.
Clearly, Alfred Nobel was interested in the betterment of mankind. The hundreds of winners of Nobel prizes since 1901 indicate that many others have shared that as a common interest. It is clear, though, that even the best of human efforts have failed to bring about truly beneficial conditions for all mankind. That will occur only after God takes action “to bring to ruin those ruining the earth.” (Rev. 11:18) According to Bible prophecy, we can look forward to that in the near future.