Nobel Peace Prize Medal © Wikicommons
“The best remedy against depression is a hot bath and the Nobel Prize” (Dodie Smith, novelist).
The Nobel Prize may indeed be the most prestigious and best known award on Earth; one which can certainly not only put an end to depression, but also ensure world recognition and admiration for its recipients.
The man behind the prize, whose name it also bears was Alfred Nobel, an accomplished Swedish scientist and best known as the inventor of dynamite. As well as holding some 355 patents, Nobel was a successful entrepreneur and businessman who also wrote poetry and drama. In fact, his diverse interests are reflected in the categories of the prizes he established.
The Nobel Prizes were bestowed after his death in 1896, when he left most of his large fortune – about 265 million dollars in today’s money – to the establishment and funding of these prizes. Beginning in 1901, the Nobel Prize has been awarded each year for great achievements in the fields of Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Literature and Peace, as had been stipulated in his last will in 1895. He also designated the institutions that would be responsible for the awards, as well as the selection of the winners. The four awarding institutions are the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the Swedish Academy, the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute and the Norwegian Nobel Committee.
In 1968, Sweden’s central bank, Sveriges Riksbank, established the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in honour of Alfred Nobel by making a large donation to the Nobel Foundation on the occasion of its 300th anniversary. Since 1969, the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences is awarded each year by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, following the same criteria as for the other Nobel Prizes.
Since 1900, it is the Nobel Foundation that manages Alfred Nobel’s fortune. Its main purpose is to ensure the long term financial stability and independence of this private institution and to fulfill the objectives stipulated in Alfred Nobel’s will and testament. Over the years, the Nobel Foundation has actively developed and strengthened the ‘Nobel’ brand; it has expanded its network and related events, thus disseminating knowledge about the famous prize. There is now a Nobel Prize museum in Stockholm and a Nobel Peace Center Foundation in Oslo, both externally funded but contributing to the ever increasing popularity, prestige and acknowledgment of the Nobel Prize.
The Nobel Prize Foundation also organises several educational programmes, exhibitions and public debates under the general motto: ‘Science impacts lives’, aiming to spread Alfred Nobel’s vision and to inspire people to great discoveries and achievements.
Since 1901, the Nobel Prizes are traditionally presented each year on December 10th, to mark Alfred Nobel’s death anniversary. The festive ceremonies take place at the Stockholm Concert Hall, where, after the presentation speeches, His Majesty the king of Sweden hands out the coveted medal and a diploma to each laureate. This event is followed by a Nobel Banquet hosted by the royal family of Sweden and to which around 1300 guests including family members of the laureates, prominent figures of society as well as 250 students are invited. The yearly Nobel ceremonies are, as Alfred Nobel intended, a great celebration of academic achievements that attract massive international media coverage and public attention.
“The Nobel awards should be regarded as giving recognition to this general scientific progress as well as to the individuals involved”, said John Bardeen, the only person to have ever received the Nobel Prize for Physics twice, in 1956 and 1972.
Marie Curie was the first woman to receive the prestigious prize. She was exceptionally awarded two Nobel Prizes, one in recognition of her great achievements in physics in 1903, for the study of spontaneous radiation, won together with her husband, and the other in chemistry in 1911, for the discovery of two new chemical elements, radium and polonium.
But the record for the most Nobel Prizes won is held by the International Committee of the Red Cross. This celebrated Swiss institution is the only three-time winner of the prize in 1917, 1944 and 1963, as a recognition of its tremendous drive and activity around the world, ‘for the efforts to take care of wounded soldiers and prisoners of war and their families’.
The Nobel Prize rewards bold discoveries, tireless efforts and great personalities. “The further the experiment from the theory, the closer it is to the Nobel Prize” (Frederic Joliot-Curie).
It was Albert Einstein who possibly came closest to embodying this statement. He received the Nobel Prize in 1921 ‘for services to theoretical physics’. For years, many have voiced the opinion that the world’s most renowned scientist should have won perhaps seven more Nobel Prizes for his immense contributions to world knowledge and progress, including one for his famous Theory of Relativity.
Over the years, there have been well-known people as well as more obscure recipients of the awards, including some unexpected names in the long list of laureates.
In 2016, to the surprise of many, folk singer Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in recognition of his contribution ‘to the creation of new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition’.
Contrary to public belief, Winston Churchill never won a Nobel Peace Prize. Instead, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953 for ‘his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values’.
Most odd and surprising was the nomination of Adolf Hitler for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1939…the same year he started World War II. It was a Swedish member of parliament by the name of E.C.G Brandt who nominated the infamous dictator. If this was done as a joke, it certainly was a bad one!
The Nobel Peace Prize is possibly the most popular among the Nobel Prizes, partly because of the prominent names who have been awarded it over the years; great personalities known for their activities and efforts. As was stated in Alfred Nobel’s will, the Nobel Peace Prize is to be awarded to the person who ‘shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations and promotion of peace’. Nobel said, “I intend to leave after my death a large fund for the promotion of the peace idea, but I am skeptical as to its results”.
Nobel also decided that this prize will be the only one awarded in Oslo, Norway. The laureates are chosen by a five-member Norwegian committee, appointed each year by the Norwegian Parliament or ‘Storting’. It is not known with any certainty why Alfred Nobel made this specific choice and why Norway was chosen.
But irrespective of the venue, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded 102 times to 137 laureates, some of whom are great personalities and renowned institutions.
Martin Luther King Jr. won it in 1964 for ‘combating racial inequality through nonviolent resistance’, Willy Brandt in 1971 for ‘the efforts to strengthen cooperation and for achieving reconciliation between West Germany and Eastern Europe’, Mother Theresa in 1979, for ‘her work in the struggle to overcome poverty and distress’.
The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, the former president of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, the dissident and former president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, and former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan are some of the great names on the Nobel Peace Prize list.
Barack Obama, the 44th president of the United States of America was awarded the prize in 2009, just eight months after being elected, for ‘his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation, especially reaching out to the Muslim world’.
There is a special mention for Malala Yousafzai who in 2014 became the youngest Nobel Peace Prize recipient at the age of seventeen. This Pakistani girl has become famous for her determined efforts to defend girls’ rights to attend school and for the right of all children to education.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, founded in 1950, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1954 for ‘protecting refugees, displaced communities and stateless people and assisting in their voluntary repatriation, local integration and resettlement to a third country’.
In 1965, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) was rewarded for its ‘efforts in providing humanitarian aid to children worldwide’.
Amnesty International also won the prize in 1977 for protecting human rights, as did the European Union in 2012 for achieving ‘over six decades of peace, reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe’.
While the Nobel Prizes are widely regarded as a great honour and as the most prestigious award given for intellectual achievement in the world, six winners in the entire history of the prizes declined to accept it; some were put under pressure from their governments and others rejected it for personal reasons.
The first was the German chemist Richard Kuhn who was awarded the prize for ‘his work on carotenoids and vitamins’ in 1938. However, the Nazi regime forced him to decline the award. The following year, Adolf Butenandt was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work on sex hormones and Gerhard Domagk won the Nobel Prize in medicine. Both were forced to decline the award by Adolf Hitler. In fact, the Gestapo arrested Domagk soon after the Nobel committee announced his nomination. In 1958, the Russian novelist Boris Pasternak was awarded
the Nobel Prize in literature for ‘his important achievement both in contemporary lyrical poetry and in the field of the great Russian epic tradition’. But Soviet authorities publicly denounced Pasternak’s novel, Doctor Zhivago, and threatened him of arrest if he went to Sweden to receive the award. French philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre declined the Nobel Prize in literature in 1964, explaining that the reasons that motivated his decision were ‘personal and objective’. And finally, the Vietnamese politician Le Duc Tho refused to accept the Nobel Peace Prize he shared with Henry Kissinger in 1973 for his efforts in the Paris Peace Talks that led to a ceasefire in the Vietnam War.
In 2021, the Nobel Prize was awarded to 13 laureates for achievements ‘that have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind’.
The 2021 prizes rewarded the work for ‘Physical modeling of Earth’s climate, reliably predicting global warming’ (Nobel Prize for Physics – Syukuro Manabe, Klaus Hasselmann and Giorgio Parisi), for ‘The development of asymmetric organocatalysis’ (Nobel Prize for Chemistry – Benjamin List and David W.C. MacMillan), for ‘Discovery of human temperature and touch receptors’ (Nobel Prize for Medicine – David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian), for ‘The contribution to labour economics and analysis of casual relationships’ (Nobel Prize for Economic Science – David Card, Joshua D. Angrist and Guido W. Imbens).
The 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Abdulrazak Gurnah, a novelist born in Africa but living in the UK and writing in English. In his novels he documents the immigrant experience from different perspectives. The motivation for the award states that he proved an ‘uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of refugees in the gulf between cultures and continents’. Gurnah was previously elected a fellow of the British Royal Society of Literature in 2006, and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.
This year’s Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded for ‘efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace’. It was awarded to two journalists, Maria Ressa and Dmitry Andreyevich Muratov, thus underlining the importance of a free press all over the world. It also recognizes the current trend of growing repression of the media and restrictions on freedom of expression in some parts of the world.
Maria Ressa is only the 18th woman to have been honoured in the Nobel Prize’s 120 year history. The Filipino-American journalist was awarded the almost 1 million dollar prize for her struggle to bring attention to the violation of human rights and press freedom in the Philippines.
The second laureate of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize is Dmitry Muratov, the celebrated Russian journalist, founder and editor-in-chief of the only truly critical national newspaper in Russia today. ‘Novaya Gazeta’ investigates high-level corruption cases, human rights violations and abuse of power. This bold project which began with two computers and one printer was initially also supported by the former Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, who donated part of his Nobel Peace Prize money to fund the newspaper. Today, it has become a publication of national influence with one million readers. In an interview, Muratov described their activity as being like in a war zone, commenting on the brutal or mysterious deaths of some of his colleagues which occurred while investigating corruption cases in high political spheres.
Whether for Peace or any of the other categories of human endeavour, the Nobel Prizes reward groundbreaking discoveries that contribute to world progress and to the promotion of great personalities whose bold actions have a lasting and positive impact on peoples’ lives.
The Nobel Prizes continue to celebrate courage and vision, 120 years after they were first conceived.
“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less”. (Marie Curie)