While Alfred Nobel may have had noble intentions when he instituted the Nobel Prizes for excellence in certain fields of human endeavour, much of the glamour of receiving a Nobel prize has worn off in recent decades.
Many recipients are completely unworthy of the accolades that come with the Prize, while other, more deserving candidates have gone unnoticed amid the swirling myths, lies, misconceptions, and media manipulation that surround many recipients of the Nobel Prize.
In his book, The Nobel Prize: A History of Genius, Controversy, and Prestige (Arcade Publishing, 2000), author Burton Feldman makes the following statement, and it summarises the issue of myth-building around the recipients of the Noble prize perfectly:
“Even a cursory inspection will reveal the juries that pick the laureates have often shown bias, lapses of judgment, and bitter infighting.
In the sciences, a number of quarrels, scandals, and even lawsuits have erupted over claims to priority or credit for collaborations honored by Nobels. And while widely admired, the sciences have also been charged with swaying research goals and funding, however inadvertently, and more insidiously with corrupting scientific ambitions by the lure of Nobel fame.
Such controversies, together with public dissent from several prizes, have been part of the Nobel history since its beginning. All prizes stir arguments, the Nobel’s fame simply magnifies this hugely.
But to report, as Montaigne said, “only what is canonical and reverend” is to omit half of any subject. This is the case here: the un-canonical and irreverent need notice if the Nobel institution and its awards are to be approached as the living, changing, and complex things they are.”
The list below recounts myths, misconceptions, and outright manipulation of the truth surrounding 5 recent recipients of the Nobel Prize. You may find them shocking, revealing, sad, or even outrageous, but above all, we hope you find them entertaining.
Noble Prize Myth #1
Jean-Paul Sartre (1905- 1980) was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1964, which he refused on various moral grounds. However, apparently broke, he asked for the money in 1975, but was turned down by the awards committee.
Here’s what really happened:
Sartre has always been widely respected for the consistency of his opinions and principles, and in a statement he made at the time of the award in 1964, he said the following: “The personal reasons are these: my refusal is not an impulsive gesture, I have always declined official honors. In 1945, after the war, when I was offered the Legion of Honor, I refused it, although I was sympathetic to the government. Similarly, I have never sought to enter the Collège de France, as several of my friends suggested.”
Moreover, Sartre was a highly successful writer, and for the last 16 years of his life, he wanted for nothing, since the royalty payments on his works kept him well supplied with all his earthly needs.
Noble Prize Myth #2
There is no Nobel Prize for mathematics because of the affair that Alfred Nobel’s fiancé had once had with a mathematician.
Here’s what really happened:
While it is true that Nobel was once engaged, in the sense that he did propose marriage to a woman named Alexandra, there is no record of her having had an affair with a mathematician, neither during her involvement with Nobel, nor after she left him to marry a former flame, Baron Arthur von Suttner, who incidentally, had no interest in mathematics.
Nobel never again proposed marriage, and the reason for the fact that there is no prize for the subject, is simply that Nobel did not grasp the importance of higher mathematics to the development of the sciences. Nobel was a chemist by nature, and he never worked with pure mathematics; to his way of thinking, the only endeavours worth spending time on were physics (lots of maths in physics), chemistry, literature, medicine, and of course, the pursuit of peace.
As an aside, Alfred Nobel’s obituary in a French newspaper merely stated that:
“Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.”
Nobel Prize Myth #3, #4, and #5
The awards committee always publishes a shortlist of nominated candidates.
Fact: The selection committee never releases the names of candidates, and all records dealing with any award are sealed for a period of 50 years.
Media campaigns in favour of a particular candidate can influence the awards committee to award a prize to a person other than the decided-upon winner.
Fact: The awards committee is fiercely independent, and pressure in favour of a particular candidate can in fact have the opposite result to what was intended with a media campaign.
It is possible to nominate a candidate up to the last minute before an award is made.
Fact: All nominations are subject to a deadline of eight months before awards are announced, and the first day of February is the absolute last day on which nominations can be submitted.
Nobel Prize Myth #6
Mother Teresa was a friend to the poorest of the poor.
Here’s who Mother Teresa really was:
Recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, “Mother “ Teresa was certainly no friend of the poor. What the world saw was vastly different from the reality.
By the time of her death, Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, as she was born, had established more than 600 missions, hospitals, and “homes” for the poor in more than 120 countries, but these institutions fell far short of the image she had created for public consumption.
At the risk of maligning the dead, it is perhaps more fitting that a former volunteer in her organisation, a woman named Hemele Gonzalez, describe the conditions the poorest of the poor in Calcutta were faced with in one typical “home”, known as a “Home for the Dying”:
“No chairs, just stretcher beds. There were no medical care or pain killers beyond aspirin and the refusal to take a 15 year old boy to the hospital”. I was shocked to see the negligence. Needles were washed in cold waters and reused and expired medicines were given to the inmates.
Bear in mind that Mother Teresa’s global income is more than enough to outfit several first class clinics in Bengal. The decision not to do so is a deliberate one. The point is not the honest relief of suffering, but the promulgation of the cult based on death and suffering and subjection.”
In his book, The Missionary Position, author Christopher Hitchens notes that several visiting doctors to “Homes for the Dying” had noted a total lack of basic hygiene that amounted to “unfit conditions”, lack of medical care of the inmates, starvation of inmates, and a complete lack of basic medicines such as pain killers. Asked to comment, “Mother” Teresa had the following to say:
”There is something beautiful in seeing the poor accept their lot, to suffer it like Christ’s passion. The world gains much from their suffering.” There is more- “Mother” Teresa did not avail herself of her own facilities when she fell ill. Instead, she preferred California clinics when she got sick herself, and her order always refused to publish any details of the costs of her treatments. It is also perhaps fitting to note that Teresa had spent her entire life in opposing the one true cure for poverty- the empowerment of women, and especially poor women.
Nobel Prize Myth #7
Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Nelson Mandela was a pacifist, hated communism, and stood for human rights, human dignity, and reconciliation.
Who Nelson Mandela really was:
Much had been written about the man Nelson Mandela, the “saint” who is said to have single-handedly brought about the South African “miracle”. However, not nearly enough had been written about the myth that was made out to be the man.
For a start, he was a true communist, and did much to promote the cause of communism in Southern Africa, if not the world. He is universally recognized as the founder of “Umkhonto we Sizwe” (The Spear of the Nation), the armed wing of the now-ruling African national Congress. This organization was formed with the express purpose of bringing down the SA Government through violence and acts of sabotage and terror, and many innocent civilians (black and white) died at the hands of MK, short for Umkhonto we Sizwe.
In fact, Mandela admitted to having planned and executed acts of terror during his 1964 trial, and even in the early 1980’s, when the minority Government had already started dismantling Apartheid, Mandela refused to abandon violence as a means to reach an end when he was offered his freedom.
Mandela also never relinquished his hero-worship of known dictators, mass-murderers, and sponsors of international terrorism, and the following statement made by Mandela during an interview with Princeton Lyman, (a veteran U.S. diplomat) perhaps says it best of all: “These were people who were helping me [Mandela] when you weren’t helping me.”
This Nobel Prize Video Website was created by Mike P, whose interests are ethics, and science education. He taught chemistry, physics, and general science at the college level for 38 years. Since retirement, he has established this website that examines the prize and its winners as well as current events from a science and research perspective.