How Einstein got the Nobel Prize
The procedure of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for awarding the Nobel prize in physics is in outline as follows. Invitations to nominate are sent out by a five-member Nobel Committee (hereinafter called the Committee) elected from the membership. This Committee studies the proposals and supporting material, draws up a protocol of its deliberations, and decides by majority vote on a recommendation to the Academy. The recommendation is then transmitted in the form of a report (hereinafter called the Report) that summarizes the merits of the proposals handed to the Committee and gives the reasons for its decision. The recommendation is voted on first by the Academy Klass (section) of physics. Then follows the decisive vote by the Academy in pleno (not just the physicists). These votes need not agree with the Committee's recommendation. For example, in 1908 the Committee unanimously proposed Planck. The Klass vote was also in support of Planck. But the Academy chose Lippmann.
The case of Planck sheds additional light on the controversial nature of the quantum theory in its early days. 'This suggestion [Planck] got a rough treatment in the Academy. . . . After the defeat in 1908, the Committee had gotten "cold feet" as far as Planck was concerned. Also, of course, the importance but also the contradictions of quantum theory came more into focus from around 1910 on, [and] so the award to Planck was postponed in the hope that the difficulties of the quantum theory could be sorted out' [N1].
It was my privilege to be given access to Committee Reports and letters of proposal bearing on Einstein's Nobel prize. Once more, I thank all those in authority for entrusting me with this material, especially Professor Bengt Nagel, who was kind enough to answer additional questions.
The Academy's decisions have nearly always been well received by the community of physicists. To be sure, eyebrows (including my own) are raised on occasion. That, however, is not only inevitable but also irrelevant to the account about to be given. My sole focus will be upon matters of great historical interest: the scientific judgments of leading physicists who made the proposals and the judg