The Controversial History of the Nobel Prize

A story of the greatest honor in scientific achievement.

by Brian Keating
Flickr / robynmack96

On November 8, 1895, Wilhelm Röntgen accidentally won the first Nobel Prize in Physics. Toiling away in his lab, he discovered a mysterious form of radiation coursing through his Vienna laboratory. When photographic plates are exposed to cathode rays — beams of electrons — they get developed, even when opaque aluminum foil completely covers the plates. Röntgen’s wife, Anna Bertha, became the first hand-bone model in history when she put her hand between the rays and a piece of film. When she saw her skeleton’s digits on the exposed film she cried out, “I have seen my death!” Fortunately, Anna went on to live for several more decades and Röntgen’s rays, which you will recognize as X-rays, have saved or improved the lives of billions, not taken them.

Wilhelm's 1895 X-ray of his wife Anna's hand.

Wilhelm Röntgen

The speed of application of the discovery — from physics lab to physician’s office within a year — was unprecedented, and it was celebrated around the world. Alfred Nobel wrote his will just weeks after Röntgen’s serendipitous invention. Though the prize was awarded to him six years later, Röntgen would become the paradigm for future Nobel Prize winners — a lone physicist whose discovery immediately bettered mankind. Quick, beneficial, and clean, just the way Alfred wanted it.

One hundred and fourteen years later, my invitation to nominate candidates for the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics made it clear that the Nobel Committee wasn’t adhering to Alfred’s stipulation on timing. The dispensation allowing discoveries made long ago was a workaround that seemed to be the committee’s way of recognizing the messiness of the modern scientific enterprise, where years — plural, not singular — are needed to elevate discoveries into the scientific canon. Only a handful of Nobel Prizes have been awarded the year after the prize-winning discovery or invention was made; some have been awarded for discoveries made nearly a half century earlier. How long, I wondered, had Alfred’s requirement been treated as a mere suggestion?

Portrait of Alfred Bernhard Nobel (1833-1896), Chemist

Wikimedia / Sumita Roy Dutta

This is the first of many departures from Alfred’s will. Ultimately, it is a modification I agree with. Science takes time; decade-long experimental searches are common. Decades more are sometimes required to vet, and to replicate, the discoveries. This is time well spent; it confirms that the findings will stand the test of time, and prevents the rush to judgment, pro or con, that often accompanies the latest “[scientific breakthroughs](”

But even this stipulation comes with a dark side. As we will see in chapter five [of the book], the decades-long prize process often outstrips the average human lifespan, with several prospective laureates dying just before their accomplishments became “fully appreciated,” by the Nobel Prize committee at least.

Other modifications to Alfred’s will are far more insidious. Not only might he not approve but he might not recognize what has become of his final testament. These departures have, I believe, distorted his altruistic vision for world-bettering scientific discoveries and, worst of all, affected the careers of physicists, especially younger ones.

Like the other five Nobel Prizes, the [physics prize is encumbered by arbitrary strictures and concealed behind a secretive process. And while the discoveries physicists make in the basic sciences are usually less controversial than those, say, in economics or medical science — fields laden with ethical implications — the physics prize suffers from systemic biases, ailments that, sadly, are self-inflicted.

In its early years the physics prize was plagued by anti-Semitism, with Hitler’s Chief of Aryan Physics, Nobel laureate Philipp Lenard, personally leading a campaign to prevent Einstein himself from winning one. Thankfully, that shameful chapter has long been abolished (and Lenard would surely be distressed to learn of the large number of Jewish laureates!). However, there have been only two female physics laureates, despite the much greater number of deserving candidates in over one hundred years. No woman has won the Nobel Prize in Physics since 1963.


The other five Nobel Prizes have also seen significant controversy over the years. The chemistry prize awarded to Fritz Haber in 1918 was criticized because Haber had used his discoveries to make chemical weapons. The Nobel Prize in [Physiology or Medicine awarded to Antonio Moniz “for discovery of the therapeutic value of the lobotomy” in the treatment of certain forms of mental illness led to the popularization of the technique, without regard to its questionable ethical implications. And the Nobel Prize in [Economics, a prize Alfred did not include in his will, no longer exists; it is now known as the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. Sure, it’s catchy. But what would prompt such a radical reformation of the only social science to be associated with the Nobel name?

Even the prize that was closest to Alfred’s heart, the peace prize, has seen much controversy, from its presentation in 1973 to principal actors behind the Vietnam War to its award in 1994 to Israeli and Palestinian leaders who can hardly be said to have “reduced the standing armies of the world,” as Alfred’s will specified. Indeed, three past laureates signed onto a lawsuit against the Nobel Foundation, charging that the award of the 2012 peace prize to the European Union, which does not “realize Nobel’s demilitarized global peace order,” violated the conditions of Alfred Nobel’s will. Heck, even the award of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature to a popular musician, Bob Dylan, caused an outcry.

There is much to learn from how institutions fail to live up to their potentials, and the Nobel Prize is no exception. The tribulations faced by the five other prizes offer teachable moments for the physics prize — which is, I fear, in danger of being tarnished. Luckily, there is time to reform it before it is too late.

Excerpted from Losing the Nobel Prize: A Story of Cosmology, Ambition, and the Perils of Science’s Highest Honor by Brian Keating. © 2018 by Brian Keating. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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