Should the Nobel Prizes be cancelled?

01 Oct 2018

Should the Nobel Prizes be cancelled?

If you ever meet someone who claims to have nearly won the Nobel Prize in mathematics, walk away: You’re dealing with a deeply delusional individual. While there isn’t, and has never been, a Nobel in mathematics, the desire to claim Nobel-worthiness is sensible, for no matter the field, it is the world’s most prestigious accolade.

The annual prizes are Sweden’s most sacred holiday, bringing out royalty in the arts and sciences and a worldwide audience of millions to witness an event featuring the pomp and circumstance typically associated with the naming of a new pope. Indeed, the prizes are so important to Sweden’s national identity that the king of Sweden, the Swedish Academy’s supreme patron, recently took the unprecedented step of expressing his concerns regarding the scandal and his intention to rewrite the statutes so that compromised members of the Swedish Academy could resign. A few weeks later the Nobel Prize in literature for 2018 was canceled. What would cause King Carl XVI Gustaf to take such an extraordinary step? I would argue that he did so for the same reason that Alfred Nobel founded the awards to begin with: public relations.

Chemist and inventor Alfred Nobel was once called “the merchant of death” for his arms dealership’s role in “killing more people faster than ever before.” To rehabilitate the Nobel name, Alfred created the eponymous prizes with a mission that the awards be “for the benefit of mankind.”

The Swedish Academy wisely decided that the literature Nobel take a one-year hiatus to investigate the allegations of horrific sexual misconduct by the husband of a key member of the committee that awards the prize in literature. This “stand-down” period will hopefully also allow for a reevaluation of the process by which the prizes are awarded.

While the two science prizes, in chemistry and physics, have so far not succumbed to scandal, they have had their fair share of controversy. (See Haber’s 1918 chemistry Nobel for the synthesis of ammonia, after his advocacy for chemical weapons use in 1915.) Still, I believe it might behoove the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences to take a year off as well.

As an astrophysicist and an invited nominator of Nobel laureates in years past, I have studied the prize and the organization that awards them. My investigations revealed a bevy of biases that still remain within the esteemed physics prize (my specialization). If it were to “stay the course,” I fear the prestige of the Nobel, and perhaps the public’s perception of science itself, could be irreparably harmed.