In his will, Nobel also stipulated that the awards could be given to anybody, regardless of nationality. I think that this is one of the main reasons behind the success of the Nobel Prizes
Dr Lars Heikensten
Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, Marie and Pierre Curie, Albert Einstein, Alexander Fleming, Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama… Names such as these could have been lifted straight from a Who's Who
article concerning the last hundred or so years of human endeavour. Whilst such individuals, and many others, share the common attribute of having impacted immensely upon modern society, they also share the accolade of being Nobel laureates.
Dr Lars Heikensten, Executive Director of the Nobel Foundation, explains how links between the world-renowned prizes and Alfred Nobel's original vision have been maintained, and about the role of Nobel Prizes now and in the future…
What were the Nobel Prizes originally intended to accomplish?
The will of Alfred Nobel is a relatively short document, handwritten by Nobel himself. It is not a particularly 'legal' text. Nobel emphasises that he wants his wealth to reward those who benefit mankind. In his will, he highlights the specific areas on which he would like attentions to be focused; namely physics, chemistry, medicine, physiology, literature and peace-related endeavour. He also specified the institutions that should award these prizes and grants. Although we can speculate, Nobel was not specific about exactly why he wanted his estate to be used in this way.
If you look at Nobel's life and read his writing, you will get additional clues as to what his inspirations might have been. Many people, in fact, have attempted to do just this. Some have wondered why he chose these specific areas. Others have questioned why he didn't choose different areas. I must say that all of these areas were a part of Nobel's life at one point or another. For example, he tried to write a drama during the latter stages of his life. He read a lot of literature and he had a great interest in supporting the work of others. I suppose that the Nobel Peace Prize has stimulated the largest amount of discussion. This award has an interesting history. Nobel knew Baroness Bertha von Suttner; a novelist who was very active in the peace movement of her time. Peace was a prominent theme in Nobel's writing, and most people believe that Baroness von Suttner was the inspiration behind the Nobel Peace Prize. Incidentally, Baroness von Suttner became the first female recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905.
Nobel was clear that all of his assets should be sold and the money used as rewards for the prizes. It was a complicated matter as he owned parts of different businesses and it was difficult to sell everything immediately. The institutions that Nobel had specified also had to accept the bestowed responsibilities. Awarding these prizes would involve a lot of time and effort, and many of these institutions were sceptical as to whether Nobel's vision could be realised. Six years passed before the first prize could be awarded.
In his will, Nobel also stipulated that the awards could be given to anybody, regardless of nationality. I think that this is one of the main reasons behind the success of the Nobel Prizes. There were already very prestigious prizes being awarded in Britain, France and in other countries. However, these awards were quite limited in their focus. Nobel's was really the first international award. This, coupled with the wide variety of specified areas, made Nobel Prizes very distinctive from the beginning.
How have the Nobel Prizes impacted upon society since the first was awarded in 1901?
This is quite a difficult question for me to answer. I haven't seen a study in this respect. There might of course have been one, but I haven't seen it. My personal opinion is this. Imagine that you are a prominent scientist at a top university. You have enjoyed great breakthroughs and you are well paid; you are at the height of your profession. Aside from your inner drive, what are your incentives? For this reason, Nobel Prizes can be very important to academics. This incentive is probably more pronounced in the sciences than it is in peace or even literature, but it remains an important consideration.
On a broader level, Nobel Prizes are capable of focusing the public eye on particular human achievements. When I was at Sweden's Central Bank, my British colleague Mervyn King, who is an academic himself, visited me for the Nobel festivities. He made the point that modern society encourages a lot of competition, and rewards many different things. Television programmes such as American Idol are examples of this trend. However, Nobel Prizes are unique in that they are extravagant festivities that reward, amongst other things, scientific achievement.
Is the Nobel Foundation's role to encourage human endeavour or to reward outstanding work?
1901 Award Ceremony
I would say that our role incorporates both of these aspects. In a way, you could say that we aim to achieve what Nobel intended to achieve. He wanted to stimulate human endeavour by rewarding it.
Do you think that the work of the Nobel Foundation remains in keeping with Nobel's original ambitions?
I think that it does. If we focus on the Foundation, its initial role was to manage Nobel's will. The Foundation tried to look after Nobel's assets so that sufficient prize money was provided for future laureates. This is something that we still do today. We also provide a substantial amount of money to each of the prize-awarding institutions, enabling them to run professional processes upon which their decisions about prize recipients can be based. We do not in any way influence who receives the prizes; that decision is made completely independently by the individual institutions. Our other main task is to protect the Nobel Prize trademark, which is globally recognised. Essentially, the importance of these tasks remains the same today as it was when the Foundation was established.
The 1968 addition of the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel – is this an example of how the awards have adapted over the years?
Yes, I suppose it is. There were five original Nobel Prizes. In 1968, the Swedish Central Bank, which is the oldest Central Bank in the world, decided to put up the money for this extra prize. This was accepted by the Nobel Foundation, and in the end, a decision was made in the Swedish Parliament to allow the bank to pay for the prize every year. However, it is awarded in accordance with the principles of the original awards.
The principles that you have spoken of appear to be universally relevant, regardless of the age in which we live. How do you envisage the Nobel Prizes of the future? Will they continue along the same lines, or do you think that their functions will change?
I have thought about this before. I do not believe that such change has taken place during the past 100 years, and I do not see any real reason for it to occur in the future. Of course, all sorts of changes take place over time. These can have an influence on the ways in which the prizes are awarded. However, the importance of the prizes and their rewarding of great achievement will continue to have a stimulating effect.
People tell me that, in the sciences, it is more and more common that breakthroughs are achieved as a result of the efforts of large teams, rather than because of individuals. This raises a potential problem as it is stipulated that the individual prizes can be awarded to a maximum of three people during one year. This could well be an issue that we need to address in the future. Some prizes, especially the Nobel Peace Prize, have been awarded not only to individuals, but also to institutions. This might be one way of dealing with the problem. This is one example of change, but I do not think that the role of the prizes will diminish. As long as the prizes are awarded with integrity, I believe that their prestige will remain intact.
There will always be mistakes and oversights. Of course, over the years there have been some people who in retrospect perhaps should have received a prize. I think that this is a danger that we can live with, as long as the prizes are awarded earnestly. One can allow for a mistake every now and then, but a lot of mistakes could prove detrimental over time.
It seems fair to say that the vast majority of Nobel laureates have been deserved winners. However, are there any that you feel have had a particularly pronounced impact on modern society?
Well, we are now talking of approximately 850 people, many of whom have contributed enormously to mankind. I think that one good example would be Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen who received the Nobel Prize in Physics in its very first year. Where would we be without X-rays? Another fine example would be Sir Alexander Fleming who was awarded the 1945 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of penicillin. If I had to choose a third laureate, it would be Nelson Mandela who won the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the development of South Africa. There are three people, but I am sure that I could offer a further 20 or more.
What are the current priorities of the Nobel Foundation?
Over the past 20 years the workload of the Nobel Foundation has increased. We have worked hard to emphasise and spread awareness of past laureates. We have also been working hard to keep the brand the same as it was over a century ago. Most importantly, we are working closely to ensure that we achieve what Nobel wanted to achieve. We are currently considering an exhibition called 'To the benefit of mankind', the purpose of which is to tell stories about past laureates and their achievements. I think that it is important that the public find out how such individuals have affected our lives for the better.