Eyes on the Prize: Alfred Nobel's Legacy Today. (End Paper)

By Sohlman, Michael | Harvard International Review, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Eyes on the Prize: Alfred Nobel's Legacy Today. (End Paper)


Sohlman, Michael, Harvard International Review


The Nobel Prize became an integral part of world culture in the 20th century. Since then, the Prize has appeared in the media on an almost daily basis, primarily in references to Nobel laureates. While it has triggered much attention and controversy, the role the Prize plays in recognizing humanity's greatest achievements remains open to debate.

The Nobel Prize was established by Alfred Nobel (1833-1896), a Swedish entrepreneur and inventor of dynamite who, in the year before his death, modified his will to allocate part of his fortune to found the Prize. The will prescribes the grand design, principles, and criteria for what is probably the greatest of all his inventions--the prize that carries his name.

The Prize was a product of Nobel's experiences, values, and view of the world. The entrepreneur's formative years and education shaped his cosmopolitan philosophy. He was raised in St. Petersburg, where different nationalities and cultures blended into the rhythmic pulse of city life. Nobel learned five languages, studied world literature, and mastered the fundamentals of physics and chemistry. His subsequent career took him to the United States, France, Sweden, Germany, Scotland, and again to France, where he settled permanently in Paris. He spent the last years of his life in San Remo, Italy. When asked where he lived, Nobel, who devoted a very large proportion of his time to business travel, replied, "Home is where I work, and I work everywhere."

Nobel possessed a keen interest in philosophy, particularly in Enlightenment philosophers, including Spinoza, Descartes, Voltaire, and Comte. Like his literary idol Shelley, Nobel held quite radical political views. In his library, Nobel kept volumes by the great 19th century writers Leo Tolstoy and Victor Hugo, reputed for their themes of idealism, pacifism, and social compassion.

When Nobel's final will was opened, a three-year legal battle ensued between the executors of the will and the Swedish branch of the Nobel family. The Nobel Foundation was eventually established in 1900, and the first Nobel Prizes were awarded in 1901. Since then, and increasingly over the following decades, the Nobel Prize has become the supreme distinction of excellence in the "Nobelian" disciplines of Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Literature, and Peace. In 1968, the Swedish Riksbank (the world's oldest central bank) celebrated its Tercentenary Jubilee by instituting a Prize in Economic Sciences in memory of Alfred Nobel.

When writing his will, Nobel envisioned a prize that would go to young scientists and researchers who, like him as a young man, were brilliant but short of funds to finance their work. From the very beginning, the Prize focused on fundamental scientific discoveries, even though awards were sometimes also given for technical inventions.

Nobel Status

How did the Nobel Prize acquire the international prestige it enjoys today, when a century ago there already existed a number of prestigious prizes in different countries? One important factor was the internationalist, cosmopolitan ideology behind the Prize, embodied in the wording of the will: "In awarding the Prizes, no consideration whatever shall be given to the nationality of the candidates, but that the most worthy shall receive the Prize, whether he be Scandinavian or not." In this way, the Nobel Prize was the first truly international prize, sending a strong internationalist signal at a time when the tide of nationalism and chauvinism was rising.

Another compelling reason is the size of the monetary component of the Prize--approximately US$1 million per prize in 2002. When the Prize was launched a century ago, this sum amounted to roughly 15 times the annual salary of the average professor.

Yet another factor is the design of the Prize-awarding process. It starts in September the year before the awards, when selection committees send letters of invitation to people all around the globe to nominate candidates. …

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