How Noble is the Nobel Prize?

Apr 19, 2021 | 0 comments

Most people are somewhat familiar with the Nobel Prize in regards to its much-venerated international Peace Prize component that has become the most popular hallmark of this award. But the Nobel Prize, which was first awarded in 1901, is also given to those scientists who have exhibited exemplary advancements and discoveries in the fields of Physics, Chemistry, Physiology/Medicine, Literature, as directed by its founder, Alfred Nobel, in his will and testament. 

Some notable recipients of this popular award were: 

  • Albert Einstein in Physics in 1921 for his discovery of the ‘photoelectric effect’ that described how atoms emit electrons after being struck by photons; and
  • Francis Watson & James Crick in 1962 in Physiology/Medicine for their ground-breaking discovery of the double-helix DNA molecule, which helped initiate the whole field of Genetics(1), even though in truth they stole this discovery from a woman scientist, Rosalind Franklin, who had taken the original X-ray Crystallography image of DNA years prior to them being awarded the Nobel Prize.(2)

The Nobel Prize engenders an image of accomplishment and prestige in the areas of Science and Medicine and probably for most people, an association with someone who has exemplified the pursuit and advancement of peace in the world. But upon deeper investigation, there seems to be another side to the history of this prestigious prize and the forces that dictate its award, that bring to light a progression of science that has not only become largely detached from its foundations, but perhaps even devoid of the truth it is originally based upon. 

Even the basis for which the prize’s founder, the Swedish inventor Alfred Bernhard Nobel, originated the concept of the Nobel Prize is questionable, for when his brother Ludvig died of a heart attack in France, the French newspapers somehow mistakenly identified him as Alfred, writing a critical obituary that branded him as a “merchant of death” who gained his fortune by developing new methods to “mutilate and kill”.(3)  

This take on Alfred Nobel’s life most likely stemmed from the fact that his life’s fortune was gained from the invention and sale of weapons such as dynamite, blasting caps and ballistite (a smokeless gun powder) and that one of his nitroglycerin factories that tested and manufactured a precursor to the more stable dynamite he later invented, blew up in a horrific accident that killed many people, including his younger brother Emil Nobel. 

It’s widely speculated that the bizarre reading of Alfred Nobel’s own obituary inspired him to place in his will and testament the provisions to pass on his remaining realisable assets, formulating a foundation that would award prizes to those who have done their best for humanity in the field of Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature and Peace. One could infer that the inspiration for this decision was based on Nobel’s wish to clear his name of the public’s negative perception of his work and to create an image of a more positive legacy after his death. 

Although the explosives he invented were used effectively in the mining and construction industry, they also became a key component in the development of many militarized weapons systems, so perhaps Nobel came to regret some of the choices he had made that lead to more death and destruction around the globe and this spurred his decision to start the Nobel Prize organization. 

Even the original inventor of nitroglycerin, Ascanio Sobrero, was mortified to hear of Nobel’s discovery of dynamite (a more stable form of nitroglycerin) and once stated, “When I think of all the victims killed during nitroglycerin explosions, and the terrible havoc that has been wreaked, which in all probability will continue to occur in the future, I am almost ashamed to admit to being its discoverer.”(4)

Since its inception in 1901, the Scandinavian based Nobel Prize has been marked by much controversy, especially in relation to the Peace Prize and the funding and selection processes that the Nobel Foundation have adopted over the years. Anja Bakken Riise, the leader of the Norwegian environmental and social justice organization ‘The Future in Our Hands’, has expressed her shock at the Nobel Foundation’s ethical practices after deeply researching their funding and investment history and has stated: “It’s a paradox that they (Nobel officials in both Stockholm and Oslo) hand out Peace Prizes to those fighting climate change and to human rights activists, but on the other hand go along with financing what the prize winners are fighting against.”(5)

The fact that the Nobel Foundation has invested in weapons producing companies like Saab AB, the British American Tobacco Company (not exactly promoting a healthy lifestyle) and the heavily polluting coal company RWE, and that these companies are actually on Norway Oil Fund’s blacklist due to violations of their ethical guidelines, brings much cause for concern and raises a red flag of potential hypocrisy for the business practices that fund the Nobel Prize itself. In fact, they seem to contradict the very foundation of creating prizes for those that contribute to the goodwill of humanity in their respective scientific and social fields of expertise

When it comes to the historical nomination process for recipients of the Nobel Prize, there have been many questionable nominees that were chosen for seemingly spurious reasons, especially in regards to the prestigious Peace Prize. In both 1945 and 1948, Joseph Stalin, the Soviet leader who according to Soviet historian Roy Medvedev was responsible for the deaths of approximately 20 million people by various means, was nominated by a Norwegian, apparently for political reasons, as Norway was partially liberated from German hostilities during WW II by Stalin. (6)

Along with this was the nomination of the Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in 1935, the same year he invaded Ethiopia, by both a German law professor and another professor from France. The records of all the nominations are normally kept in the Nobel Institutes archives, but these two just happen to be missing. (7) Very interesting, indeed. 

As for actual Nobel Peace Prize winners, Yasser Arafat, the famous head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, a well-known terrorist organization, won the prize in 1994, apparently for his work on the Oslo Accords that were attempting to bring peace between Palestine and Israel.  In 2008 Harald zur Hausen received the Nobel Prize for Medicine for his discovery of the human papilloma virus (HPV) and its link to cervical cancer. The problem? AstraZeneca, which produced HPV vaccines, sponsored the Nobel Prize website. In addition, two members of the panel that selected zur Hausen had ties to AstraZeneca. This conflict of interest drew criticism but was not addressed by the Nobel Institute. Even the woman who originally discovered pulsars in 1967, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, was overlooked for the prize yet her advisor, Antony Hewish, to whom she had submitted her discovery, was later awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1974 for the exact same discovery of pulsars. (8)

The nomination of Barack Obama for a Nobel Peace Prize before he even officially stepped into the White House as the U.S. President in 2008 is also extremely questionable, considering the fact that his administration went on to continue the escalation of wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, tortured supposed terrorist captives at Guantanamo Bay Detention camp in Cuba and was responsible for the greatest proliferation of deadly aerial drone strikes around the world. ‘The 542 drone strikes that Obama authorized killed an estimated 3,797 people, including 324 civilians. As he reportedly told senior aides in 2011: “Turns out I’m really good at killing people. Didn’t know that was gonna be a strong suit of mine.”’(9)In consideration of all that has been expressed thus far in this exposé, one may begin to question not only the validity and value of an organization like the Nobel Institute, but how and why we have created a world where we give away our power to so-called ‘experts’ in their various fields, rewarding them as the Nobel Institute does with $1 Million+ prize money and lavish celebrity awards ceremonies; putting them on a pedestal that was potentially constructed under political, financial and even nefarious means, without truly checking in with ourselves to feel if what is being presented even makes sense for all of humanity. 

When science is reduced to a glamour based popularity competition, with the winners being determined by a set of judges that are swayed by various social, financial and political influences, we are diverging from the true source and purpose of science, which is to collaboratively bring an understanding of the mechanics of the Universe and all the movements within it to all, equally. 

How did we get to this diminished state of affairs within the science community and in particular, the Nobel Foundation? An example of the immense responsibility scientists have in regards to the choices made after any new discovery may be ‘just what the doctor ordered’ here. 

It is interesting that nitroglycerin, the foundational component of Alfred Nobel’s dynamite, has also been used for treating chest pain since 1879, when London physician William Murrell realized it had a similar composition to another chest pain medication, amyl nitrite. It has now been determined by scientists that the human body breaks down nitroglycerin into a very beneficial molecule called nitric oxide, which has many health benefits, including the fact that it opens blood vessels and increases the supply of blood and oxygen to the heart, ultimately providing relief from chest pain caused by contraction of blood vessels (angina). But what is even more paradoxical is that Alfred Nobel himself was incidentally prescribed nitrogylcerin for his own heart problems and actually declined to take the medication, even though at that time it was already proven to be effective. (10)

The irony of Nobel’s decision to not utilize nitrogylcerin for its known health benefits, even for himself, but instead for its destructive capacity brings to the fore the critical point of responsibility aforementioned. Because it always comes down to a choice for scientists and all of us – do we consider the whole of what is beneficial for all of humanity when we bring something to them in the form of an invention, new theory, medicine or concept, or do we merely push forward in a drive for personal financial gain, fame and power? These are the considerations that must be at the forefront of our approach in order to allow a more true science to be our norm. 

True science brings to humanity the wonderment of a child who is watching for the first time a butterfly emerging from its cocoon or a phenomenon as majestic as the Aurora Borealis, and a sense of humbleness at not having all the answers for what is causing it all to occur, but at the same time feeling deep within that there is a Divine origin to its unfoldment. It is within this innocent inquiry of the Nature of things where true science is born and there exists great wisdom within every one of us that can be expressed by even the simplest of observations. There is no need for a laundry list of PhDs or history of attendance at elite Universities, just a noble thirst for Truth through scientific inquiry. 

And on that note, I will leave you with a quote from physicist Richard Feynman who, when asked his opinion on his nomination for the Nobel Prize in Physics, stated: “I don’t see that it makes any point, that someone in the Swedish Academy decides that this work is ‘noble’ enough to receive a prize. I’ve already got the prize! The prize is the pleasure of finding the thing out, the kick of the discovery, the observation of the people using it. Those are the real things. The honours are unreal to me. I don’t believe in honours. Honours are epaulettes, honours are uniform.” (11)

These words feel like they were coming from someone who was able to see through the pomp and circumstance of the Nobel Institute’s approach of rewarding scientists for their discoveries with fame and fortune, as Feynman is touching on what it means to be a true scientist, to not make discoveries for one’s own personal gain, but to expand the awareness of all of humanity of the mechanics of the Universe, as that is more than enough award for any noble man or woman. 

References:

  1. The 10 Noblest Nobel Prize Winners of All Time’, Live Science, Oct. 4, 2011. Available at: https://www.livescience.com/16379-10-noblest-nobel-prize-winners-time.html
  2. ‘Rosalind Franklin, Discovery of the Structure of DNA’, Thoughco.com, April, 9, 2019. Available at: https://www.thoughtco.com/rosalind-franklin-biography-3530347
  3. Did a Premature Obituary Inspire the Nobel Prize?’, History.com, Jul. 23, 2020. Available at:https://www.history.com/news/did-a-premature-obituary-inspire-the-nobel-prize  
  4. The Man Who Invented Nitroglycerin was Horrified by Dynamite’, Smithsonianmag.com, Oct. 12, 2017. Available at: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/man-who-invented-nitroglycerin-was-horrified-dynamite-180965192/
  5. Nobel Prize Funding Comes Under Fire’, News in English.no, Oct. 6, 2017. Available at: https://www.newsinenglish.no/2017/10/06/nobel-prize-funding-comes-under-fire/
  6. Major Soviet Paper Says 20 Million Died as Victims of Stalin’, NYtimes.com, Feb. 4, 1989. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/1989/02/04/world/major-soviet-paper-says-20-million-died-as-victims-of-stalin.html
  7. The Irony, Nobel Peace Prize Nominees included Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini’, War History Online.com, Feb. 24, 2019. Available at: https://www.warhistoryonline.com/instant-articles/nobel-peace-prize-nominees.html
  8. 7 Nobel Prize Scandals’, Britannica.com, Available at: https://www.britannica.com/list/7-nobel-prize-scandals .
  9. Obama’s Final Drone Strike Data’, CFR.org, Jan. 20, 2017. Available at: https://www.cfr.org/blog/obamas-final-drone-strike-data
  10. ‘Three Things to Know About Dynamite, The Reason We Have Nobel Prizes, Forbes.com, Oct. 1, 2016. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/carmendrahl/2016/10/01/three-things-to-know-about-dynamite-the-reason-we-have-nobel-prizes/?sh=259ab5a35cdd
  11. ‘Noble Prize Snub: Real Reason Richard Feynman Rejected Award Revealed’, Express.co.uk, April 27, 2020. Available at: https://www.express.co.uk/news/science/1274271/Nobel-prize-richard-feynman-atomic-bomb-world-war-2-2020-science-physics-spt

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