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How the Nobel Prize became the most controversial award on Earth

This Nobel Prize medal for Physics went to Joseph John Thomson 1906 for work on how gases conduct electricity.
SSPL/Getty Images

It's Nobel Prize season again, when a select few scientists, writers, economists, and people working toward peace will get phone calls at odd hours informing them that they've received one of the most prestigious awards on Earth.

From 1901 to 2015, 573 Nobel Prizes have been given out, including household names like Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Nelson Mandela, Ernest Hemingway, and the International Committee of the Red Cross. It's a long, long history — long enough to be filled with plenty of drama and contention.

So here are the basics of how the Nobel Prizes work, and the biggest controversies from the past:

Why are the Nobel Prizes such a big deal?

No one can really agree on why the Nobel Prizes are a much bigger deal than all the other prizes out there. Perhaps it's because they've been around for more than a century or because the prize — roughly $1 million — is so large. But at this point, they're definitely one of the most impressive awards around.

The backstory for the awards is pretty well-known. There once was a Swedish man named Alfred Nobel. He was a chemist and engineer, he invented dynamite, got rich, and — when he died in 1896 — did something unusual. He bequeathed about $260 million to create prizes to reward various scientific and cultural advances produced by people or organizations anywhere in the world. Thus, the Nobel Prizes were born. (Note: The prize is pronounced No-BELL, emphasis on the bell.)

How do they choose who wins?

There are Nobel Prizes in five categories: Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature, and Peace. (The Economic Sciences Prize, established in 1968 by Sweden's central bank, is not technically a Nobel but a prize in honor of Alfred Nobel.)

Nobel winners must be alive, and a Nobel cannot be shared by more than three people. There's no limit to how many prizes a person can receive. Organizations can get them, too. (For example, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has received multiple Peace Prizes.)

The Nobel committees invite thousands of people each year to nominate recipients. Those records are secret for 50 years, after which they're unsealed. That means you can search the Nobel Prize nomination archives and find out who proposed whom throughout history.

For example, below are all the times that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was nominated or nominated someone else. Notice that he and his secretary of state, Cordell Hull, nominated each other in the same year. FDR never actually received one, but Hull got a Peace Prize in 1945 for helping establish the United Nations:

Franklin D Roosevelt Nobel

An example of a nominations record from the Nobel Prize's public archives. (Nobelprize.org)

So who makes the decisions? The Royal Swedish Academy appoints its own members to committees for the Nobels in Physics, Chemistry, Literature, and Economics. The Karolinska Institutet, a Swedish medical university, does the same for the Physiology and Medicine prize. Membership lasts three years. If you want to know who exactly is on the roster, the names are public (here's the 2014 literature committee).

Each year, the committees confidentially invite qualified people to nominate potential winners. The nominators generally consist of members of the academy or institute itself, members of the relevant Nobel committee, past Nobel laureates in the field, tenured professors from Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, and Norway, department chairs from elsewhere, and other scientists or presidents of author societies.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee, appointed by the Norwegian Parliament, handles the Peace Prize. Nominators don't need to be invited, but have to be members or advisers of the committee, previous Nobel laureates, people working in relevant fields (social sciences, peace research, etc.), national politicians, or members of international courts.

Depending on the prize, nominators may fill out a form or write a letterYou can't nominate yourself. The relevant committee, often aided by advisers, either votes for a winner or submits recommendations to a larger assembly. All decisions are final.

What do the winners actually get?
Nobel Prize banquet

Queen Silvia of Sweden sits between Nobel Laureate in Physics Francois Englert and Carl-Henrik Heldin, chairman of the board of the Nobel Foundation, at the 2013 banquet. (Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

Later this year, the winners will go to Stockholm; attend a fancy white tie ceremony; meet Swedish royalty; and get a beautiful diploma, a heavy gold medal, and a document confirming their award money. This year, the award is 8 million Swedish krona (roughly $931,000 US) and can be split by up to three people.

The ceremony is followed by a lavish banquet. In 2013, attendees dined on a guinea hen "mosaic," turbot fish stuffed with lobster, and a "chocolate silhouette with nougat and sea buckthorn explosion." (All menus are public.)

There's one exception, though. The Nobel Peace Prize is awarded at a separate event in Oslo, Norway. Alfred Nobel never explained why he wanted certain prizes given by the Swedes and the peace one by the Norwegians.

What are the best Nobel Prize controversies?

Ostracized blob person Nobel

Clearly the pink blob person on the right didn't get to share a Blob Person Nobel Prize with the other two blob people. So sad. (Shutterstock)

The Literature Prize is very often controversial. For example, many widely admired writers like Vladimir Nabokov and James Joyce never won, while some now-forgotten authors have.

The rule that no more than three people can share a Nobel has made for some good controversies in science, especially in fields that require a lot of collaboration. It's not that uncommon for someone to get left out. Physicist Mark Jackson has a good roundup at the Conversation of people who were robbed of a prize because of this rule, including Freeman Dyson for his contributions to quantum electrodynamics.

The Nobel Prizes are the work of fallible humans and therefore have been accused of their share of Eurocentrism, sexism, and the rest. For instance, back in 1967, physics researcher Jocelyn Bell discovered an odd pattern in her data that turned out to be the first discovery of a pulsar star. But she never won a Nobel for this. Instead, in 1974 her adviser Antony Hewish received a Nobel Prize in Physics for "his decisive role in the discovery of pulsars." He shared the prize with fellow astronomer Martin Ryle.

The Nobel Peace Prize is probably the most controversial Nobel of all —and not just because Mahatma Gandhi never got one.

Why is the Nobel Peace Prize always so controversial?
Obama Nobel Prize

Obama decided to send 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan a week before this picture was taken at the Nobel ceremony, where he got his Nobel Peace Prize in 2009. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

There's almost always controversy around the Peace Prize — in part because it's so political. What's more, some politicians win the prize for certain peace-promoting actions, but then engage in conflict later on (or have engaged in conflict previously). That can get messy.

In 2009, New York Times ethics columnist Randy Cohen argued that "the prize should be rescinded in those extreme cases when a past winner has repeatedly acted contrary to the values the prize enshrines." He suggested a few possibly unworthy winners, including President Teddy Roosevelt, Henry Kissinger, and Yasser Arafat. (According to the Nobel Prize rules, a prize cannot be taken back.)

Arguably the most controversial Nobel Peace Prize in recent memory is President Obama's in 2009, "for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples." Obama was still in the first year of his first term, and many at the time argued that the prize was premature. Plus, he's engaged in quite a few bombing and drone campaigns since.

In a different flavor of controversy, three Peace Prize winners have been under arrest by their home countries when awarded the prize (which turns the award into a very political statement): Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo in 2010, Burmese politician Aung San Suu Kyi in 1991, and German journalist and pacifist Carl von Ossietzky in 1935.

Can dead people win?

Ralph Steinman

Ralph Steinman died three days before his Nobel Prize was announced. Here, his family speaks at a press conference after the announcement. (Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images)

No. In 1974, the Nobel Foundation changed its rules so that awards couldn't be given out posthumously. This rule has created tons of controversy, especially because it often takes decades to determine whether a person's work has had a significant enough impact to be worthy of a Nobel.

The rule can also lead to awkwardness. In 2011, the Board of the Nobel Foundation announced that it would be giving a Prize in Physiology or Medicine to Ralph Steinman, only to find out that he had just died three days before.

Steinman's award was for discovering a new type of immune system cell, the dendritic cell, decades earlier. Later in life, after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he created and tried an experimental dendritic cell therapy on himself, which seems to have prolonged his life by about four years (most people with pancreatic cancer die in one year). Unfortunately, he didn't live long enough to hear about his Nobel.

However, the board resolved to still give him the award, on the logic that it hadn't known that he was dead when the initial decision was made.

By the way, it's often claimed that Rosalind Franklin, a co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, got left out of the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine because she had died four years earlier. But that's not technically true. The posthumous rule wasn't formally in effect at the time, although it was exceptionally rare for awards to be given after death. As recently unsealed documents showed, Franklin was never nominated. Instead, Francis Crick, James Watson, and Maurice Wilkins won the prize.

Why isn't there a Nobel for mathematics? Or art? Or music?

Math chalkboard woman

(Shutterstock)

The Nobels started with five prizes: Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature, and Peace. Then, in 1968, Sweden's central bank made a donation to establish a prize in Economic Sciences, which is not technically a Nobel but "the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel."

The Nobel's board seems to have no interest in adding new categories. The Nobel Prize website repeatedly says that the board has decided "not to permit new additions."

So no, there's no prize in environmental sciences, engineering, fine art, mathematics, or any number of other things that matter. There's a longstanding myth that there's no Nobel Prize in math because Alfred Nobel's wife had an affair with a brilliant mathematician. However, this myth seems baseless — for one, Nobel never even married.

Who refused a Nobel Prize? And why?

Sartre

Jean-Paul Sartre said no thanks. (Votava/Imagno/Getty Images)

It doesn't happen often. But when it does, it's dramatic. Jean-Paul Sartre was awarded the Prize in Literature in 1964, but turned it down because he was Jean-Paul Sartre. He stated that writers shouldn't affiliate themselves with institutions and lived by that — he even turned down membership in the French Legion of Honor.

Henry Kissinger and Vietnamese politician and negotiator Le Duc Tho were awarded the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating an armistice in Vietnam, but Tho refused it, reasoning that ''peace has not yet been established.''

Meanwhile, four other awardees have been forced to decline the prize by their governments. Hitler didn't allow three Germans to collect their prize money in the 1930s: chemist Richard Kuhn, for work on vitamins, chemist Adolf Butenandt, for work on sex hormones, and Gerhard Domagk, discoverer of the first antibiotic to become commercially available.

And Russian writer Boris Pasternak, author of Doctor Zhivago (which had to be published outside the USSR), initially accepted his prize for literature in 1958 but was then forced by the Soviet government to turn it down.


Correction: The man appearing to the left of Queen Silvia in the photograph was originally misidentified.