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The Noble Prize

IN HIS 1985 will, Alfred Nobel, a Swedish industrialist who made his fortune by inventing and selling dynamite, left to posterity a sizable prize fund, stipulating that it be used each year to recognize those individuals “who shall have contributed most materially to benefit mankind.” Today, the Nobel Prize is the most prestigious and coveted award in the world. It is the undisputed arbiter of greatness in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace–the five fields specified by Nobel–as well as in economics, which was added in 1968. Winners earn not just a gold medal and great sum of money–more than $900,000 last year–but also a considerable measure of intellectual and moral authority. “The awards seem almost to issue not from mere Stockholm,” Burton Feldman writes in his engaging and comprehensive history, “but from some timeless Realm of Objective Judgment.”

Feldman, a professor of English recently retired from the University of Denver, celebrates the genuinely outstanding achievements that the Nobel Prize has so often served to recognize. But he is wary of the award’s unparalled influence–and its carefully cultivated image of critical rigor. As he ably demonstrates, considerations other than mere excellence have long played a role in the bestowal of the world’s most sought-after laurel.

IT IS not easy to explain the success of the Nobel Prize. The Templeton Prize for progress in religion is more lucrative, and the Fields Medal in mathematics, awarded just once every four years, is harder to win. Moreover, the institutions that administer Nobel’s legacy–three Swedish academies and the Norwegian parliament–are not otherwise thought to possess any special competence in discerning the heights of human achievement.

What, then, accounts for the prize’s prestige? Feldman gives much of the credit to the grand ambitions of Nobel himself, who wished to honor excellence without regard to national or disciplinary boundaries. Against the balkanizing tendencies of the modern intellectual world, Nobel established “the first important regular prize to include not only the arts and sciences, but also politics in the form of `peace.'” Nor has it hurt that during this century of astonishing scientific progress, the prize’s recipient’s for chemistry, physics, and physiology constitute a “steady procession of greatness,” from Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, and Werner Heisenberg to James Watson and Francis Crick.

Nonetheless, Feldman shows, the Nobel’s track record is far from unblemished, even in the vaunted picks for science. During the prize’s early years, for instance, the kingmaker on both the physics and chemistry juries was Svante Arrhenius, the most famous scientist in Sweden. He backed the physical chemists in their turf war against organic chemists and helped shut geo- and astrophysics out of serious prize consideration. Such prejudices have diminished, but even so, neither the astronomer Edwin Hubble, whose observations provided evidence for the expansion of the universe, nor the geologist Alfred Wegener, who proposed the theory of continental drift, ever won the prize. In addition to oversights like these, there have been several questionable recipients, like Maurice Wilkins, who shared the 1962 prize with Watson and Crick despite having contributed little to uncovering the structure of DNA. He was included, Feldman reports, because of the behind-the-scenes maneuvering of a previous laureate who considered Wilkins the victim of “frightfully bad luck.”

WHATEVER THE shortcomings of the science prizes, however, worse by far have been the selections for literature. Over the years the Nobel juries have ignored, among many others, Leo Tolstoy, Henrik Ibsen, Mark Twain, Marcel Proust, Henry James, Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, and Robert Frost. Such injustices, Feldman insists, cannot be blamed on a surfeit of deserving writers. In 1901, the first year of the prize, Tolstoy’s greatness was widely recognized; yet the award went to Sully Prudhomme, “as forgettable a poet as can be found in the Nobel’s long list of mediocrities.”

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