The Nobel Cult

OSLO -- The dance around the golden Nobel medallion began over a 100 years ago, and is still going strong. As icon, myth, and ritual, the Nobel Prize is well secured. But what do we actually know about the Nobel Prize?

Shrouded in secrecy and legend, the Nobel Prize first became an object for serious scholarly study after 1976, when the Nobel Foundation opened its archives. Subsequent research by historians of science leaves little doubt: the Nobel medallion is etched with human frailties.

Although many observers accept a degree of subjectivity in the literature and peace prizes, the science prizes have long been assumed to be an objective measure of excellence. But, from the start, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which awards the physics and chemistry prizes, and the Caroline Institute, which awards those for medicine/physiology, have based their decisions on the recommendations of their respective committees. And the committee members’ own understanding of science has been critical in determining outcomes.

From the beginning, the inner world of those entrusted to make recommendations was marked by personal and principled discord over how to interpret Alfred Nobel’s cryptic will and to whom prizes should be awarded. While committee members tried to be dispassionate, their own judgment, predilections, and interests necessarily entered into their work, and some championed their own agendas, whether openly or cunningly.