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Are Nobel Prizes Still Relevant?

Illustration Credit: Phuong Huynh

The Nobel Prizes 2019 were announced again this fall with a total of 14 laureates. Immediately, the Swedish academy awards were caught up in a controversy involving Peter Handke’s Nobel Prize for literature. “We reject the decision that a writer who has persistently called into question thoroughly documented war crimes deserves to be celebrated for his ‘linguistic ingenuity,’” said PEN America president and Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Egan. The controversy not only sparked the criticism of Nobel Prizes’ conflicts of interest and bias but also questions whether the awards are still relevant.

To understand how it all started, we had to go back to the 1800s. At that time, Nobel Alfred, a Swedish inventor and businessman, established himself as one of the world’s most wealthy men. With the assets of 92 factories in over 20 countries and 355 patents, most notably dynamite, Nobel Alfred himself had amassed a great fortune, yet had never been married or had children. Without an heir, it is widely believed that Nobel decided to leave his property for the use of Nobel Prizes. However, there is another theory. Another story follows that in 1888, Nobel was astonished to read his own obituary in a French newspaper with the headline “Le marchand de la mort est mort”—The merchant of death is dead. Apparently, the French journalist had mistaken him for his brother, Ludvig, who had actually died. Back then, it was reported that the incident considerably affected Alfred himself and made him think about the legacy he left behind. Hence, the Nobel Prizes were created to award those who “have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind” in the fields of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace. Later, Sveriges Riksbank, Sweden’s central bank, also added Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences into the categories.

Today, it is no doubt that Nobel Prizes has become one of the most prestigious awards in the world with notable laureates such as Marie Curie, Martin Luther King Jr., Albert Einstein or even The International Committee of the Red Cross. While the laureates’ achievements are undeniable, many have criticized Nobel Prizes for being Western-biased and dominated by white males. Moreover, the world has changed significantly since 1901, the first year the prizes were awarded, and many scientists are urging the Nobel Committee to include more breakthrough in areas such as ecology, neuroscience or technology–things that were not yet studied in Alfred Nobel’s time. Thus, the academy awards have failed to achieve their purpose in the 21st century of rewarding people with meaningful work to society. Undeniably, in the past, Nobel Prizes have overlooked significant contributors many times such as chemist Dmitri Mendeleyev, who developed the periodic table, or Mohandas Gandhi or the great novelists Leo Tolstoy and Mark Twain. Not to mention that due to the nature of Nobel Prizes, only three American physicists were honored in 2017 for the first observation of gravitational waves in physics even though this topic was researched by more than 1,000 scientists. 

However, to many people, there is still something valuable in celebrating knowledge as our attention is constantly divided between disasters, massive sporting spectacles, and overhyped entertainment awards. Arbitrary and subjective as they might be, Nobel Prizes have brought people’s attention to subjects the general population might not have known about otherwise. Noble Prizes make the public care through the story of an individual and give recipients a broader platform to boost personal influence as well as raise political and social issues as shown through the peace prizes awarded to Malala Yousafzai. With the Nobel Peace Prizes, both were able to bring issues to the international agenda and induce major institutions and countries to put greater emphasis on human rights in their policies. Apart from that, with an astronomical amount of awarded money, many Nobel laureates have chosen to donate it to advance research and support educational or social welfare programs as well as non-profit organizations.

Year after year, Nobel Prizes have been the dream of many, yet have become increasingly controversial and met with severe condemnation. While some were largely endorsed by the public, such as Mother Teresa or Nelson Mandela, it is obvious that we are still missing important disciplines and overlooking plenty of deserving individuals. While the Nobel Committee has tried to change the prizes towards being more inclusive and global, extending and updating them is still a challenge. As the Nobel Prize Awards 2019 is approaching, I believe that a reflection and debate on the future and legacy of the Nobel Prizes is a necessary one if we really want to recognize “those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.”