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What is the Nobel Prize?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 16, 2024
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The Nobel Prize is the brainchild of Alfred Nobel, a Swedish chemist who was best known in his lifetime for the invention of dynamite. Upon his death in 1896, a reading of his will revealed stipulations that over 90% of his estate should be used to establish prizes in five categories: physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and peace.

Many wonder why Nobel established the prizes, and it has often been assumed that he sought to make restitution for creating dynamite. Nobel did catch a glimpse of a French obituary for himself when his brother died and a French newspaper thought he had died. Among other colorful terms, the newspapers called Alfred Nobel a “merchant of death.” Therefore, the restitution to reward the positive aspects of the world remains the popular theory on the establishment of the Nobel Prize.

Alfred Nobel died in 1896, and the first prize was awarded in 1901. Nobel stipulated exactly how the prizes should be determined, and what bodies should be responsible for selecting and awarding them.

According to Nobel’s will, the Swedish Academy of Science was to award a yearly prize in physics and chemistry. The Caroline Institute at Stockholm would award the prize for medicine. The Academy of Stockholm would determine the award for literature. Five members selected by the Norwegian government select the recipient of the annual Peace Prize. The Peace Prize is awarded in Oslo, Norway, while the others are awarded in Stockholm, Sweden. Each award was to be given without regard to nationality and was meant to represent the best and brightest contributors to each field.

Some confusion exists over a sixth category, the prize in economics. This is not technically a Nobel Prize because it was not listed in Nobel’s will, and it does not use Nobel’s foundation to award funds. This award was established in 1969 and is awarded by the Swedish Academy of Sciences, with the monies awarded from the Bank of Sweden.

Typically, the Nobel Prize includes a medal, international recognition, and a sum of money for ongoing work in the winner's field. Often, the money is not greatly important since the people receiving the award tend to be at the end of their careers. Currently, those receiving the Prize may receive a little over $1 million US dollars (USD).

Since the Prize’s establishment, over 750 awards have been given. They tend not to be awarded posthumously, which has met with some controversy. Some of the recipients of the award have also been criticized. For example, Mahatma Gandhi never won the Nobel Peace Prize, despite his efforts to promote non-violent protests and fair government in India.

Others have complained about the absence of a Nobel Prize for advances in the field of mathematics. In 2002, the Niels Henrik Abel Memorial Fund was created to fill in for this absence. Each year, five mathematicians from the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters select the Abel Prize recipient for his or her outstanding achievements in the field.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By Belted — On Oct 14, 2012

I feel like some Nobel Prizes count for more than others. For instance, the prizes in Literature and the Sciences are consistently top notch and forward thinking. But I find the Peace Prize recipients to be routinely politically motivated and chosen more for popularity and notoriety. Somehow, the choice frustrates me every year.

How can you quantify peace. How can you pick one person who has made the most impact? All of this criteria seems so diffuse. I don't deny that all of the winners have done good work, but have they done the best work?

By truman12 — On Oct 13, 2012
Has the prize money for the Nobel Prize gone up over time? I know that right now it is around 1.2 million dollars. I assume it will go up in the future, but at what rate? Anyone know?
By jonrss — On Oct 12, 2012

I really admire the selection committee for the Nobel Prize for literature. They consistently pick obscure and unheard of authors.

I know that this annoys some people. They would prefer that the Nobel Prize focus on the heavyweights. But I admire their commitment to a set of standards that goes beyond being popular and well known.

I'm sorry for Phillip Roth, but if he won one, wouldn't it kind of be obvious, almost a victory lap at this point? The Nobel Prize holds itself to a more interesting and ultimate richer criteria.

By anon262288 — On Apr 19, 2012

Who should be, or who is is a good nominee for the nobel physics prize?

By popcorn — On May 04, 2011

Who do you think would make a good recipient for the Nobel Peace Prize today? Keeping in mind that they are not awarded posthumously.

By lonelygod — On May 02, 2011

There have been many controversial Nobel Peace Prize winners over its history. When Yasser Arafat received his in 1994, there were outcries because many groups had labeled him as a terrorist leader.

Another was when Al Gore picked up the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for his work with global warming awareness. Many felt that the subject had little to do with what the prize was really intended for.

Considering that people like Mahatma Gandhi, with all his work towards non-violence never received one despite being nominated 5 times, one has to wonder what this prize is really recognizing.

By anon14278 — On Jun 13, 2008

I want to know difference between Baber-Bosch process and Kellogg process of ammonia synthesis

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia...
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