A depiction of Alfred Nobel in the Nobel Museum in Stockholm. Credit: sol_invictus/Flickr, CC BY 2.0
A depiction of Alfred Nobel in the Nobel Museum in Stockholm. Credit: sol_invictus/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

About three weeks from now, the Nobel Foundation will announce the winners of the 2015 Nobel Prizes. Every year, commentators, opinionators and enthusiasts try to guess who will win the awards – some of them have become famous because they’ve been able to guess the winners with uncanny accuracy. However, as it happens, the prizewinners’ profiles have sometimes exposed patterns which tell us how they might have been selected over others. For example, winners of the physics prize have also typically been awarded the Wolf Prize. For another, like a recent study showed, winners of the medicine and physiology prizes seem to have had similar qualitative preferences for their inter-institutional collaborations.

More light is likely to be shed on its opaque selection process by the Nobel Foundation’s decision to open up its archives and reveal the name of not just all nominees but also the nominators who got those names on the rosters each year.  The complete list for all prizes – except economics – awarded between 1901 and 1964 is now available for the first time. The lists for awards given after 1965 are not visible because they’re sealed for 50 years. With the information, the question of “Who nominated whom?” is worth asking not just for trivia’s sake but also because it throws up clues about the politics behind decisions, the kinds of names that were ignored for the prizes, why they were ignored, and how the underpinning rationale has changed through various social periods.

There are three famous examples with which to illustrate these issues.

Mohandas Gandhi

The first is of M.K. Gandhi. The Nobel Committee admitted in 2001 that overlooking Gandhi had been one of its most infamous mistakes. In 1937, in a total of 63 nominations by prominent people, Gandhi received his first: from Ole Colbjørnsen, a Norwegian politician. Colbjørnsen would nominate Gandhi in 1938 and 1939 as well. After that, the name of Gandhi among the nominees reappears in 1947, put there by G.B. Pant, B.G. Kher and Mavalankar, and in 1948, this time with the endorsement of Frede Castberg (a Norwegian jurist), six professors of the University of Bordeaux, five from Columbia University, the American Friends Service Committee, Christian Oftedal (a Norwegian politician) and the American economist Emily Greene Balch. Gandhi was assassinated in January 1948, and since the Foundation doesn’t allow posthumous awards, his ‘case’ ended that year.

The winners in the years he was nominated in were

  • 1937 – Robert Cecil
  • 1938 – Nansen International Office for Refugees
  • 1939 – No winner
  • 1947 – AFSC and Friends Service Council
  • 1948 – No winner

The committee declined to award the prize in 1948 because “there was no suitable living candidate”. This was with reference to Gandhi, who may have received the prize had he not been killed that year. There have also been some discussions on whether the committee could have made an exception for Gandhi and awarded it posthumously, especially since the nominations had arrived a few days before his death and because his death was quite unexpected, too (incidentally, posthumous awards of the Physics Prize were allowed until 1974 if the awardee was alive at the time of nomination). On the other hand, even if these arguments had been taken seriously, they wouldn’t have fetched the Peace Prize for Gandhi – why he wasn’t chosen alludes to a different issue.

The nomination process is essentially one of filtering, and though it differs for each prize, they are all variations of the following: some 3,000 individuals around the world are asked to send in their preliminary nominations, out of which the Nobel Committee filters out and passes on an order of magnitude fewer names to relevant institutions. Finally, the institutions, represented by members on the committee, vote on the day of the prize, with the result being announced immediately after the counting. The person/persons/institutions with the most votes wins the prizes. There is a distinct committee for each of the prizes.

The number of nominators increases every year – to also include the previous year’s winners, for one – so the names of the first winners were essentially sourced from a handful of individuals.

In 1999, Øyvind Tønnesson, then nobelprize.org’s Peace Director, wrote that in Gandhi’s time, the members of the committee weren’t in favour of him for two reasons. First, many of them couldn’t help but blame Gandhi for some of the incidents of violence in India during his supposedly peaceful resistance, going as far as to claim he should’ve known that his actions would precipitate violence – for example, and especially, the Chauri Chaura incident in 1922. Second, as Tønnesson wrote, the members preferred awardees “who could serve as moral and religious symbols in a world threatened by social and ideological conflicts”, and on that note were opposed to the political implications of Gandhi’s movement – especially his role in effectuating the Partition as well as an inability to quell the widespread violence that followed.

Oddly enough, the Nobel Peace Prize is essentially a political prize, and its credibility often can’t be dissociated from the clout of members of the voting committee. In fact, alongside the Literature Prize, the duo has often been the subject of controversy simply by illustrating the linguistic and cultural differences between the Scandinavian electors and their multitudes of candidates. In 1965, U. Thant, then the Secretary-General of the United Nations, was not given the award because the chair of the Nobel Committee then, Gunnar Jahn, was opposed to him despite a majority having favoured Thant for defusing the Cuban missile crisis. One plausible reason that has been advanced, based on Jahn’s track record when he was the chair, was that Thant was only doing his duty and that none of his initiatives to secure peace in the world stepped beyond that ambit – contrary to the actions of the recipients of the 1947 Peace Prize, in Jahn’s opinion. Another incident betrayed how Jahn’s influence was inordinate, too, despite all assurances toward the selection process being democratic: he threatened to resign if Linus Pauling wasn’t awarded the Peace Prize in 1963 while the majority had voted against the chemist.

Another contention has centred on the measures of worthiness. Why can’t the Nobel Prize be awarded to more than three people at a time? Why is the time-difference between the award-winning work being done and the award being given so huge? And on what grounds will each prospective laureate be judged precisely? In the case of the 2013 Nobel Prize for physics, Peter Higgs and Francois Englert were named the recipients for work done 49 years ago, in 1964, even as four others who’d done the same work in that year were ignored. Jorge Luis Borges has been repeatedly overlooked for the Literature Prize with rumours abounding that the committee was not supportive of his conservative political views and because he’d received a prize from Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. On the other hand, some of the greatest writers in history have been politically motivated to produce their best works, so in not specifying the bases on which candidates can be rejected, the Nobel Committee makes the Literature Prize an exercise in winning the approval of a group of Scandinavians who may or may not have a sound knowledge of non-European politics.

Meghnad Saha

Meghnad Saha was an astrophysicist known for an eponymous equation that allowed astronomers to determine how much various elements had been ionised in a star based on its temperature. Saha first published his results in 1920, which were built upon by Irving Langmuir in 1923. Ever since, the equation has also been known as the Saha-Langmuir equation. Presumably for this work, Saha was nominated for the Physics Prize by Dehendra Bose and Sisir Mitra in 1930, by Arthur Compton in 1937, by Mitra again in 1939, by Compton again in 1940, and by Mitra again in 1951* and 1955. On February 16, 1956, Saha passed away.

While his equation has become applicable in different high-energy physics contexts, at the time of its conception it was advertised as being for astrophysics. And in that context, however, a shortcoming was spotted among Saha’s assumptions by Ralph Fowler and Edward Arthur Milne in 1923, who then improved the equation to fix the consequences of that shortcoming. Even so, there appeared to have been some misconceptions in the wider astrophysics community, especially in Europe, about who was the originator – not of the equation but of the more important underlying theory, which Saha called the theory of selective radiation pressure. In 1917, he was financially strained and was faced with a disappointing prospect: that the paper he’d send to the Astrophysical Journal detailing the theory couldn’t be printed unless he bore some of the printing costs, which was out of the question. So he had the paper published in the Journal of the Department of Science at Calcutta University instead, “which had no circulation worth mentioning”.

To quote from the Vigyan Prasar archives, which in turn quotes from Saha himself,

“… I might claim to be the originator of the Theory of Selective Radiation Pressure, though on account of discouraging circumstances, I did not pursue the idea to develop it. E.A. Milne apparently read a note of mine in Nature 107, 489 (1921) because in his first paper on the subject ‘Astrophysical Determination of Average of an Excited Calcium Atom’, in Month. Not. R. Ast. Soc., Vol.84, he mentioned my contribution in a footnote, though nobody appears to have noticed. His exact words are: ‘These paragraphs develop ideas originally put forward by Saha’.”

Later in the same article, now quoting one of Saha’s students, Daulat Kothari:

It is pertinent to remark that the ionisation theory was formulated by Saha working by himself in Calcutta, and the paper quoted above was communicated by him from Calcutta to the Philosophical Magazine – incorrect statements to the contrary have sometimes been made. Further papers soon followed. It is not too much to say that the theory of thermal ionisation introduced a new epoch in astrophysics by providing for the first time, on the basis of simple thermodynamic consideration and elementary concepts of the quantum theory, a straight forward interpretation of the different classes of stellar spectra in terms of the physical condition prevailing in the stellar atmospheres.

Had Saha’s work appeared in the Astrophysical Journal in 1917, would his fortunes have been different?

And given that the publishing volume has been growing very fast of late, do the prizes remain representative of the research being conducted? This question may be suppressed by arguing that the prizes are awarded to remarkable research, of the kind that is so momentous that it can’t but see the light of day. At the same time, as in Saha’s case, how much research passes under the radar of the Foundation even if it’s most in need of the kind of visibility the award can bring? And perhaps this is the more important question: of the dozens of nominations the Foundation has received every year for the Nobel Prizes, how many lost out because they published their work in the so-called low impact-factor (i.e. low-visibility) journals?

Satyendra Nath Bose

A third example is of Satyendra Nath Bose. Despite seminal work done in the 1920s, including on a topic that was quickly recognised as being radical and employed by multiple Nobel-Prize-winning scientists later, Bose was never awarded the Physics Prize. Perhaps his greatest honour for performing that work, apart from contributing to the science itself, was the British physicist Paul A.M. Dirac naming a significant class of fundamental particles after him (bosons). When Higgs and Englert were awarded the Physics Prize in 2013 for having conceived the theory behind the Higgs boson in 1964, a cry went up around India calling for Bose to recognised for his work and be awarded a share of the prize that year. The demand was thoroughly misguided because the Bose-Einstein statistics describe all bosons whereas the Higgs Six had focused on one peculiar boson. If anything, Bose could have been awarded the prize separately: he was nominated by Kedareswar Banerji in 1956, by Daulat Kothari in 1959 and by S. Bagchi in 1962.

In contrast, the only other Indian to have won the Physics Prize (before 1964), C.V. Raman, was nominated by no less than 10 people, including Ernest Rutherford, Louis-Victor de Broglie, Johannes Stark and Niels Bohr – all then or future laureates – in the same year. A case of “who nominated whom”, then? Not quite. Another reported flaw of the Physics Prize has been that it has favoured discoveries over inventions, with the 2014 edition being the most recent of a handful of exceptions to that rule. And among those discoveries, the prize’s selectors have consistently preferred experimental proof. That would explain the unseemly gap between Higgs’s and Englert’s papers in 1964 and their awards in 2013 – and it would also explain why Bose never won the prize himself. Bose’s work in statistics helped understand an already observed anomaly but it provided no other new predictions against which his theory could be tested. In 1924, Einstein would make that prediction: of a unique state of matter since called the Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC). The BEC was first experimentally observed in 1995, fetching three physicists the 2001 Physics Prize. That the statistics would also explain the superfluidity of liquid helium-4 was first suggested by Fritz London in 1938 and proved by Lev Landau in 1941 (so winning the 1962 Physics Prize).

However, this is not a defence of Bose not winning the prize as much as a cautionary note: the helpful thing to remember would be that though the Nobel Prizes may rank among the most prestigious distinctions, they have a character of their own, and that human enterprise cannot be divided as Nobel-class and non-Nobel-class, as if it were an aircraft carrier. For in the more than 800 laureates the Nobel Foundation has counted since 1901, the omissions stand out as much as the rest: apart from the few already mentioned, Chinua Achebe, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Rosalind Franklin, Václav Havel, Lise Meitner, J.R.R. Tolkien and John Updike come to mind. In Bell Burnell’s case, in fact, another man receiving the Physics Prize for a discovery she made only highlights another failure of the Nobel Foundation and has since become an example often invoked to highlight the plight of women in science.

*Also in 1951, Saha nominated Arnold Sommerfeld, a German physicist infamous for being overlooked for a Nobel Prize despite having received more than 80 nominations over many years.

The Wire
September 15, 2015

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