What is the Nobel Prize?

Who among us as a child has never dreamed of going to the moon, being a Hollywood actor, playing in the World Cup final or winning a Nobel Prize? But does anyone know what this prize is and how to win it? Let’s take a look at the characteristics, anecdotes and curiosities of this centenary celebration.

History and Facts

The Nobel Prize is one of the world’s known prizes and was first awarded in 1901. Established at the behest of Alfred Nobel, in accordance with the provisions he left in his will, the prize is awarded annually to those who have distinguished themselves by bringing the greatest benefit to mankind in the various fields of human knowledge, from medicine to physics, chemistry, literature and economics. The last of those was only introduced in 1969, at the Bank of Sweden’s instruction, in honour of Alfred Nobel. In addition to those, the prize is also awarded to personalities who have made a productive and substantial contribution to peaceful relations between people and nations.

Normally, the prizes for the various disciplines are awarded during the month of October. The award ceremony takes place on 10 December in Stockholm’s Concert Hall. The day of the award ceremony is not random, but coincides with the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death. 

During the event all prizes are awarded except the Nobel Peace Prize, which is awarded in Oslo. It was the founder himself, in his will, who defined the locations of the celebrations, as well as the bodies in charge, which are:

  • The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for the Nobel Prize in Physics, Chemistry and Economics;
  • Karolinska Institutet for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
  • The Swedish Academy for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Since the premiere in 1901, the ceremony has always taken place, with the exception of the years of the two World Wars.

The criteria of Nobel Prize

The same Nobel can be shared by a maximum of three people and only the Nobel Peace Prize can be awarded to an organisation. In addition to the award, the winners also receive a cash prize, which varies annually and currently is almost one million euros.

The process of selecting candidates and winners is fairly similar for all fields. Thirteen months before the award, the Commission sends out a request for the identification of a candidate by confidential communication. This choice is made by a pool of eminent personalities, generally chosen from previous Nobel Prize winners, professors from universities in Scandinavian countries and international academics, and members of the Swedish Royal Academy itself.

Overall, this ranges from around 600 votes to 3,000 in the months following the submission of the application, which are checked by the committees in charge. There are several commissions, for all prize-winning disciplines; for example, the “eighteen” commission is responsible for the Nobel Prize in Literature; the Norwegian Nobel Committee is the organization who assigns the Nobel Peace Prize.

These rules are also contained in Alfred Nobel’s last will and testament. Once the votes have been received, a group of experts then assesses the nominations resulting from the Commission’s screening of the votes received; the opinions collected are then used for the final vote, which is announced in October.

Not all disciplines are eligible for the prize, such as mathematics, which according to a widespread legend was excluded because of a betrayal suffered by Alfred Nobel himself from the Swedish mathematician Gösta Mittag-Leffler. The veracity of this anecdote is still debated today.

Who was Alfred Nobel?

Borned in Stockholm on 21 October 1833, Alfred Nobel was a Swedish chemist, entrepreneur and philanthropist. His father was a Swedish entrepreneur, who immigrated to Petersburg in 1842 to produce mines for the Tsarist government. Nobel received private education, which developed his interests in chemistry, engineering and foreign languages. During his youth he was fortunate to travel and expand his knowledge, between Europe and the United States. In Paris, he attended the courses of the chemist Pelouze and met Professor Ascanio Sobrero, who had invented nitroglycerine a few years earlier.

Alongside his interest in explosives, Nobel also had a love for literature and art: a reader with over two thousand books in his library, Nobel also composed a number of unsuccessful literary works in English and Swedish, focusing on the melancholy, loneliness and boredom that marked his life.

Dynamite and Testament

Over the next fifteen years, the Swedish chemist carried out numerous studies and research in the field of explosives, inventing the first relatively stable detonator in 1863. In the same year, his younger brother Emi died during an experiment in the research laboratory, which led to a ban on that explosive in Stockholm. The loss shocked Nobel, who nevertheless, succeeded a year later in perfecting his work on nitroglycerine, by using a powder initially composed of kieselguhr and thus creating dynamite, patented in 1867.

A few years later, in 1875, while following work on stabilizing agents for explosives, he invented explosive jelly, obtained by mixing Collodion Cotton with nitroglycerine and Ballistite, a smokeless gunpowder. These and other projects (those remains can be found in Italy, near Avigliana in Piedmont), many of which were patented (around 360 of them), enabling him to obtain a great fortune, that he used in his business activities and allowed him to acquire several Swedish companies.

In 1888, Nobel was at the heart of a sensational and decisive misunderstanding: the death of his brother Ludwig was mistakenly reported by a French newspaper as was of the chemistry’s itself. A harshly and condemning obituary was dedicated to Nobel’s inventions, responsible for the deaths of thousands of people with dynamite. This shocked the last years of Nobel’s life as he questioned the possibility of a “better legacy” for mankind by investing his energies in public causes. Those efforts were oriented towards medicine, disarmament and peace. Inspired by feelings of philanthropy, in 1895 he worked on his will, containing the characteristics of the Prize. He died a year later in 1896 of a cerebral hemorrhage in his villa in Sanremo.

Prize-winning discoveries

Although it is almost impossible to make a selection of the most important researches or works that have received the coveted prize, some of them have remained in our memory. In 1903, Marie Curie and her husband were awarded the prize for their work on radioactive phenomena; she also won the prize in 1911 for the discovery of radium and polonium. She is currently the only woman to have won two Nobel Prizes, in two different disciplines. 

In 1921, Albert Einstein was awarded the prize for discovering the law of the photoelectric effect, and in 1945, Sir Albert Fleming was awarded the prize for discovering the antibiotic properties of penicillin on mould-laden plates. A year later, Herman Muller was awarded the Medicine Prize for the first X-ray controlled gene mutation.

In 1962, the Nobel Prize in medicine was given to another sensational research, the one to understand the structure of DNA, by Watson, Crick and Wilkins. In 2013, the prize was awarded to the physicist Higgs, who is credited for the discovery of the boson, the subatomic particle, pursued by scientists for half a century; another mention goes to the game theory developed by the scientist John Nash in 1994, which gave him the prize for economics and was used in the famous movie A Beautiful Mind

Equally important in history are the Peace Prizes to Martin Luther King in 1964, to Mother Teresa of Calcutta in 1979, to Mandela in 1993 and more recently, to Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege in 2018.


Over the years, the coveted award has also attracted a number of anecdotes and curiosities, such as the nomination of Adolf Hitler for the Peace Prize in 1939: this proposal, which later turned out to be a pure provocation by the Swedish politician and anti-fascist Erik Brandt to award the prize to the British Prime Minister Chamberlain, initially caused a scandal and stir. Hitler himself forbidden two scientists from Nazi Germany from accepting the prize in previous editions.

The 2020 edition is currently the only one in the event’s history to be broadcasted online, following the Coronavirus pandemic. In 2019, physicist John B. Goodenough became at the age of 97 the oldest person to receive a Nobel Prize for discovering, alongside with Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino, the lithium batteries that completely transformed the way we work and travel.

Distinguished rejections and countries with more Nobel Prize winners

Jean-Paul Sartre refused the prize for literature, awarded to him in 1964. Lev Tolstoj, who was nominated in 1906, was later excluded because he “condemned all forms of civilization, claiming to replace them with a primitive way of life, detached from any institution of high culture”. When he discovered his nomination, the Russian writer asked not to be awarded the prize.

In 1958, the author of the cult classic Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak, received a letter for the Nobel Prize, but under pressure from the KGB, he was never able to collect it, dying two years later in total poverty. A similar episode occurred during the 1970 edition; Alexander Solzhenitsyn, winner of the prize, was only able to collect his diploma, medal and money in 1975, following his expulsion from the USSR.

George Bernard Shaw, while accepted the Prize, refused the money, making the following comment:

I can forgive Alfred Nobel for inventing dynamite, but only a fiend in human form could have invented the Nobel Prize.

In addition to Bob Dylan’s rejection in 2016, recent editions have also seen opposition from the Chinese government to the Peace Prize awarding, be given to Lu Xiaobo, a literary critic and human rights defender.

The United States is the country with the most Nobel Prizes in history, 270, followed by the United Kingdom with 117 and Germany with 103. French occupies the fourth place, while Sweden closes the Top5 with 30 medals

English-speaking winners

In 1945 the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine went to Sir Alexander Fleming, Ernst Chain and Sir Howard Florey for their discovery of penicillin, a fungus, and its use as an antibiotic. Sir Alexander made the discovery accidentally when he ate a moldy piece of bread and was cured of an infectious disease. Fleming discovered in the laboratory that a fungus had grown in a stack of mirrors containing bacteria. Bacteria had died in the plates immediately surrounding the fungus, while bacteria in plates further away were unaffected.

Fleming spent the next two decades studying the antibacterial effects of what he first called “mold juice” and later called penicillin after the discovery of the genus of the fungus (Penicillium).

Francis Crick and James Watson won the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine in 1962 for discovering that DNA is shaped like a double helix. Maurice Wilkins shared the prize with them for producing some of the first evidence to support their claim: he used the technique of X-ray crystallography to trace the shape of the DNA molecule. Their prize remains controversial. Watson and Crick formed their hypothesis about the shape of DNA in 1953 only after analysing an X-ray diffraction image of DNA taken by a biophysicist named Rosalind Franklin a year earlier, who had already written a draft of her paper on the helical shape of DNA before Watson and Crick wrote theirs, but her contribution was overlooked.

At the age of 35, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. became the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize when his work to end racial discrimination in the United States through non-violent means was awarded in 1964. His I Have a Dream speech, delivered a year earlier from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before a crowd of 200,000, was just one of many famous and influential speeches King gave as a leader of the civil rights movement.

Ernest Hemingway received the award in the year 1954, in the field of literature. Through his books, he ignited the public consciousness towards the general good and also had an enormous impact on the global literature. He was praised for his mastery of the art of storytelling by the Nobel Prize Committee as both children and adults appreciate his work.

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