Every year, in the first week of October, a very few lucky scientists get a phone call. For some, the phone rings in the middle of the night. For others, the middle of the day. On the other end of the line is someone with a Swedish accent who informs them they have won a Nobel Prize. Almost instantly, these individuals become celebrities. They will give talks, go to fancy parties and meet the King of Sweden.
But why is it such a big deal?
The awards are named for an inventor, Alfred Nobel. During his life, this man was best known for inventing dynamite, a type of explosive. It made him a wealthy man. And when he died in 1896, Nobel left money from his fortune to establish five yearly awards — the Nobel Prizes.
Nobel’s will directed that one award go to recognize outstanding literature. Another should reward the fostering of international peace. Nobel also wanted to reward scientific discovery. So three awards would celebrate discoveries or inventions in physics, chemistry and physiology or medicine. All five awards would come with a cash prize. That prize is now about nine million Swedish krona (around $900,000 to $1.1 million, depending on the exchange rate in any given year). If there are two winners in a category, they split the money equally. If there are three, one person gets half the money, and the other two split the other half.
Every year, thousands of scientists around the world are invited to nominate people for a Nobel Prize. (No one can nominate themselves.) Groups at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm, Sweden, evaluate nominees for the physics and chemistry prizes. A panel at the Karolinska Institute, a medical university in Stockholm, reviews nominations for the prize in medicine or physiology. These groups narrow the list of candidates. Their short lists then move on to a selection committee for each subject. Those committees vote on who will receive the prize that year — or whether no one should receive it.
The first set of Nobel Prizes was handed out in 1901. Now, the Nobel Prize “is reckoned the world championship of science. It’s the most prestigious prize worldwide,” says Nils Hansson. He is a medical historian at the Heinrich-Heine University in Dusseldorf, Germany. Winners, he notes, “are celebrated like stars, and their research gets a lot of attention.”
Rock stars of science
The Nobel Prize began to gather fame almost from the start. The winning scientist received more money than any other prize at the time, notes Robert Friedman. He is a science historian at the University of Oslo in Norway.
The prize is also notable for being international. These awards can go to scientists anywhere, not just in Nobel’s home country of Sweden. The prize became “a way in which nations could compete peacefully,” Friedman says.
As a result, the Nobel Prize received a lot of media attention. “From the beginning, the main scientific journals wrote about the Nobels,” Hansson says. Now, Nobel Prize winners are front page news.
The Nobel Prize helped to make some scientists household names, observes Harriet Zuckerman. She is a sociologist — someone who studies the social behaviors of people — at Columbia University in New York City. “It calls attention to science, which is to my mind as worthy as filmmaking and pop music — the things that most people tend to give a lot of value,” she says. “It also calls attention to people who do not necessarily come from families of great wealth. [They] succeed because they are driven by a desire to work hard and a desire to make a contribution.”
There can be only one, er, three
With a few exceptions, the Nobel Prizes have honored good science, not pseudoscientific (SU-doh-sy-en-TIF-ik) fads. A bigger issue is that there are many more impressive scientific achievements than there are Nobel Prizes. “A lot of scientists who do [good] work … get passed over because there can only be a limited number of winners,” notes Zuckerman.
Even scientists who participated in a discovery might not win a Nobel. The committees that initially set the prize rules decided that a maximum of three people in any category could win each year. Back then, many scientists worked alone or in small groups. But this means that if there was a fourth scientist in a group, they were out of luck. Now, scientists often work in large groups to make major discoveries. In a team of 100, which three would deserve to share that year’s Nobel Prize?
“In the early days, the people who made the rules couldn’t have imagined how science would change,” Zuckerman says. “More than a century has passed, so there’s a historical mismatch between the rules that govern the prize and how science is now.”
This also means that when a committee can’t find just a few scientists to get the credit, no one might get credit at all. For example, many scientists worked on the invention of anesthesia. This is the ability to stop someone from feeling pain, or to render them unconscious. Anesthesia completely changed medicine. It let doctors perform delicate surgeries without causing terrible suffering. “Many people worked on the methods,” Hansson says. But for the Nobel Prize, it was too many. The committee for physiology or medicine couldn’t find three people who contributed the most. So no one ever received a Nobel Prize for this achievement.
Also, Nobel Prizes reward achievements in only three scientific areas. In fact, much of science occurs in areas beyond those fields. Say some scientist had figured out how to accurately predict earthquakes. That could save many lives. “It would perfectly meet the notion of Alfred Nobel to benefit mankind,” Friedman notes. Unfortunately, Earth science is not eligible for a Nobel Prize.
This can be a problem when universities or institutions use the Nobel Prize as a measure of their own importance, Friedman notes. Scientific fields like astronomy or mathematics might not get as much prestige because their scientists can’t win a Nobel.
Some universities put a lot of effort into hiring and keeping Nobel Prize winners. This is something Friedman worries is not good for science. “Should science be like sports, just buying the best guys and getting your rankings?” Nobel Prizes indicate important discoveries, he notes, but “what does that say about the university, the quality of life or the quality of [its] teaching?”
The playing field isn’t so level
Between 1901 and 2018, only 12 of the 211 total winners in physiology or medicine have been women. Only five women over that period have ever won the Nobel Prize in chemistry. Just three have won it in physics. For minority scientists, the numbers are even worse. No black scientist has ever taken home a Nobel Prize.
This lack of diversity is a problem. “It’s not about the prizes but the reward system of science,” Zuckerman says. “There’s been a tendency to not recognize the work of people who aren’t from the right countries or the right sex.” Candidates also tend to come from a relatively few universities or research centers, she notes. Among them: the University of California at Berkeley and Harvard University, in Cambridge, Mass.
But things are changing, Zuckerman says. Important scientific societies, such as the National Academy of Sciences in the United States and the Royal Society in the United Kingdom, now let in more women and people of color. These societies help scientists get recognized by their peers. And the more women and minorities that become recognized, the more likely they are to receive a Nobel Prize. Between 1901 and 2001, only 10 women received a Nobel Prize in science. Within the next 15 years, another eight won them. That hardly seems fair, Zuckerman notes, “but it’s better than it was.”
While Nobel Prize winners have done amazing work, there are many scientists who will never get the golden medal or the $1,000,000. Still, the allure of the prize remains strong. “I asked freshmen at the California Institute of Technology what the goal was for [their] careers in science,” says Friedman. “Ninety percent said their goal was to win a Nobel Prize.” But there are so few Nobel Prizes, most, if not all, of those students will be disappointed. “It’s like going to Las Vegas believing you’ll become a millionaire,” says Friedman.
Not winning a Nobel Prize won’t make those students failures, however. “Yes, the brilliant insight of a brilliant scientist is important,” Friedman says. “But it’s only of importance when you have a community and networks of people working together.”
Editor’s note: This post was updated on October 3, 2018 to revise the number of women who have won Nobel Prizes in physics and chemistry.