How does the Nobel Prize work?
The Nobel Prize ceremony will start on Monday, October 3 and will run until October 10 in Stockholm and Oslo. We help you discover five things to know about these awards, given to those who have worked for “the benefit of mankind,” according to the wish of their creator, the Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel.
In 1974, the statutes of the Nobel Foundation stated that a prize could not be awarded posthumously unless death occurred after the name of the laureate was announced. Until this rule was written down in black and white, only two deceased Swedes were awarded prizes: the poet Erik Axel Karlfeldt (literature in 1931) and the presumably murdered UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld (peace prize in 1961).
On the other hand, it has also happened that a prize is not awarded, as a tribute to a deceased laureate, as in 1948, after the death of Gandhi. A recent laureate will never have had the chance to receive the famous phone call announcing a Nobel: after the 2011 medicine prize to Canadian Ralph Steinman, we learned of his death three days before. But he remains on the list of winners.
The sums are significant because the Nobel Prizes are endowed with the coquettish sum of ten million crowns per category (about 900,000 euros at the current rate) and a gold medal of 18 carats. But the Nobel Peace Prize winner and Russian journalist Dmitri Mouratov have turned gold into fortune for the benefit of Ukrainian children. In June, the 196-gram medal received by the 2021 co-winner fetched USD 103.5 million, disbursed by an anonymous philanthropist and donated to a UNICEF program. This is 21 times more than the previous record.
On April 12, 1888, Alfred Nobel’s older brother, Ludvig, died in Cannes, France. But Le Figaro made a mistake and announced Alfred’s death on its front page, with a brief, murderous headline: “A man who can hardly be called a benefactor of humanity died yesterday in Cannes. It is Mr. Nobel, inventor of dynamite”. What torments could this obituary before its time have caused Alfred? Many attributes to him the paternity of the creation of the prizes, underlining the echo of the formula chosen by Nobel to reward those who have contributed “to the benefit of humanity.” “But we can only imagine” because the incident is not mentioned in his correspondence, underlines his biographer Ingrid Carlberg to AFP. The visitors who came to present their condolences at the inventor’s Parisian mansion were surprised to be greeted by a very much alive Alfred, as reported in… Le Figaro, the next day.
A 1903 Nobel Prize winner, a pioneer… in global warming
Talented in many fields, the Swedish physicist and chemist Svante Arrhenius was awarded the Chemistry Prize in 1903 for his “electrolytic theory of dissociation.” But it is other pioneering work that has earned him the status of a pioneer today: at the end of the 19th century; he was the first to theorize that the burning of fossil fuels – at the time, central coal – leads to global warming through the release of CO2 into the atmosphere. According to his calculations, a doubling of the concentration of carbon dioxide would warm the planet by five degrees – modern models now give a range of 2.6 to 3.9 °C. Far from suspecting the increasingly enormous quantities of fossil fuels that humanity would consume, Arrhenius underestimates the speed at which this level will be reached and predicts that this warming will occur due to human activity… in 3000 years.
With more than 120 years of history and a name known worldwide, the Nobel Prizes still have a great deal to offer. But some people consider them outdated or dusty, often choosing old discoveries. The Right Livelihood award was created in 1980 by a wealthy German-Swedish man after the Nobel Foundation refused his proposal to create two new prizes for the environment and development.
But the Nobel Prizes have also found a new rival from Silicon Valley, very richly endowed: the “Breakthrough Prize.” Already nicknamed the “Oscars of science,” these Californian competitors of the august Swedish committees are left with 3 million USD, i.e. about three times more than a Nobel.