You’ve probably grown up learning that the Nobel Prize was this like… cool thing that people get. Except for the people who get snubbed due to arbitrary rules or the fact that the guy who invented the lobotomy got a Nobel Prize. Also Henry Kissinger got one, a prize so controversial two of the Nobel Committee resigned in protest. So… Maybe cool sometimes? Anyway, the Nobel Prize was started by a Swedish guy named Alfred Nobel, who wanted to commemorate the people who gave the greatest benefit to humanity each year. The Prizes for Physics, Chemistry, Physiology/Medicine, Literature, and Peace began in 1901, followed by the addition of the Economics prize in 1969. Along with the fun tagline, you get 10 million Swedish kronor, which is like 963,000 USD. Nothing to sneeze at. So how do you win a Nobel Prize?
You’re probably not surprised to find out that there’s a committee of people who nominate those eligible for a Nobel Prize in any field. The Norwegian Nobel Committee sends out nomination forms around September to qualified nominators, who have to submit their nominations by the following January.
We mentioned “qualified nominators,” and this is something that the Norwegian Nobel Committee has graciously put on the internet for the Nobel Peace Prize. Members of national assemblies/governments or heads of states (like the president of the US) are considered qualified. The Norwegian Nobel Committee also lists a handful of organizations whose members are considered qualified nominators. The International Court of Justice and The Permanent Court of Arbitration (both in The Hague) are some. Previous advisers to the Norwegian Nobel Committee, as well as previous awardees of the Nobel Peace Prize are considered qualified as well. Particularly prestigious university chairs also count too.
For all other categories, the ability to nominate is by invitation only.
While the big list of nominations is stored somewhere, there’s a 50 year rule of secrecy, where the nominees of a given year are kept confidential for 50 years. You can’t nominate yourself, but you might as well start becoming friends with people who can nominate you, we guess.
Where Do Those Nominations Go?
Once nominations are locked in they are sent to selection committees. With the exception of the Nobel Peace Prize, which is selected by a Norwegian institution, all other prizes are selected by Swedish organizations. The decision is made by a majority vote and cannot be appealed. Each prize can have a maximum of three winners, but only two works. You’ll notice that all the organizations that get the final say on who wins a given Nobel Prize are European. This has led to the Nobel Committee largely ignoring the global south.
The process is quite long, and the selection of Nobel Prize laureates takes a little over the entire preceding year. Nominators are selected and invited in the preceding September, with their nominations put in by the January before the award ceremony. Much of the spring is spent consulting with experts in regards to the nominees, while the early summer is used to write a report on everybody. The vote happens in October and everything is awarded in December.
Can you… lose a Nobel?
Fortunately (or unfortunately), you can’t have a Nobel Prize revoked. This is because the final vote on who gets the Nobel Prize actually cannot be appealed. The stated justification for this is just that no appealing or revocation process is outlined in Alfred Nobel’s will, which is… Maybe a weird way to go about it. Given the focus of the Nobel Prize on new inventions, it’s kind of funny considering that the invention can be proven to be a failure, yet there’s still a Nobel Prize associated with it. You know. Like the lobotomy.
Nominations can be shot down pretty hard though, as was the satirical nomination of Adolf Hitler in 1939 by Swedish politician Erik Gottfrid Christian Brandt.
While you may have heard that some Nobel Prizes have been awarded posthumously, they technically can’t be awarded that way. Since 1974 though, a winner who has been nominated but dies before they can be awarded the prize can still win.
See if you know your Nobel Prize laureates here.