Nobel Prize

Nobel prizes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 October, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 October, 2005, 12:00am


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A five-minute primer on an issue making headlines

One seems to be given out almost every day! How many are there?

There are six prizes altogether - physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, peace and economics. This year, there are two more to go: the economics winner is revealed tomorrow and a date for the literature prize hasn't been set.

So, what are the Nobel prizes?

They all started with Alfred Nobel, a Swedish engineer and the inventor of dynamite. When his brother Ludvig died, a newspaper ran Alfred's obituary by mistake, calling him a 'merchant of death'. Not wanting to be remembered solely as the man who pioneered explosives, he decided to use his legacy to reward annually those who had 'conferred the greatest benefit to mankind' the preceding year.

He must've left a lot of money.

It's estimated that when he died in 1896, he left about 31.5 million kronor - quite a bit in those days. Through wise investment that money has grown enough to award each prize winner 10 million kronor ($10 million).

Have the prizes been given out every year since he died?

No, it took a few years of red tape, especially as his family contested his will. The first was awarded in 1901. Originally there were five; economics was added in 1968.

How come there's no prize for mathematics?

There are a number of theories behind this. Some say Nobel didn't care for maths and didn't see how it could benefit humanity. Others say it's because a major Scandinavian prize already existed for maths in Nobel's time. The juiciest theory claims Nobel was down on maths because his wife ran off with a noted mathematician. You can discount the last one, though - Nobel never married.

Are the winners usually popular choices?

There's frequently controversy surrounding the winners. Perhaps the one that aroused the most vitriol was the awarding of the peace prize in 1935 to anti-Nazi journalist Carl von Ossietzky, a political prisoner in Germany at the time. Adolf Hitler was so outraged he banned Germans accepting future Nobel prizes.

Any big losers?

A few surprising ones - Mahatma Gandhi never received a peace prize, and Albert Einstein won a physics prize but not for his theory of relativity.

Does anyone ever refuse a prize?

In 1958, the Russian authorities branded Dr Zhivago author Boris Pasternak a traitor after he won the prize for literature. They said the book painted too bleak a picture of Russia. He refused the prize because accepting it would have forced him into exile. French author Jean-Paul Sartre also refused his literary prize because he said the prize failed to recognise all ethnicities.

Any other controversial winners?

Too many to mention. The peace prize usually attracts the greatest criticism, probably because it's often awarded to someone in the public eye. Among the controversial peace prizes awarded was the one in 1994 to Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin for their efforts to 'create peace in the Middle East', and that for Henry Kissinger in 1973, two years before the Vietnam war ended.