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The Nobel Prizes are famous for being the most highly regarded and prestigious awards, in their respective fields, in contemporary society.

They were established through the last wishes of Swedish chemist, engineer and industrialist Alfred Nobel who, writing his final will in 1895, specified that the bulk of his estate be spent on awarding prizes for those who made significant contributions in one of five fields: physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace. A sixth award was created in 1969 in the field of economics; however, it is not technically a Nobel prize as it is funded by the central Swedish bank, ‘Sveriges Riksbank’, and is called the ‘Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel’.

The Nobel Prizes have not gone without controversies and scandals, as questionable winners, perceived conflicts of interest and slights have surrounded them. These include:

  • Claims of sexism and Eurocentrism.
  • The nominations of Joseph Stalin in 1945 and 1948, and Adolf Hitler in 1938 for the Peace Prize (even if, supposedly, Hitler’s nomination was intended as a joke).Although neither of them was ever awarded the prize, the nomination itself was fairly scandalous.
  • The awarding of Peace Prizes to other controversial figures such as Yasser Arafat and Menachem Begin.
  • Allegations of the Nobel Prizes sponsor AstraZeneca influencing the selection of the committee that elects the award winners.
  • Scientific discoveries awarded the prize and later being disproved—as in 1926, when Johannes Fibiger won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for supposedly having found the source of cancer (spoiler alert, he was wrong).

The recipients, or laureates, are selected by the Nobel Committee after approximately 3000 individuals are nominated. Typically, the Literature Prize is awarded for a cumulative lifetime body of work rather than a single achievement. The awards for physics, chemistry, and medicine are typically awarded once the achievement has been widely accepted. The Prize in economics is awarded for those who, during the previous year, expanded the field of economics for the benefit of humanity. And the Peace Prize is awarded for a lifetime body of work or for specific recent events.

This year’s prizes were awarded to:

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

Awarded for “discoveries of how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability” in equal parts to William G. Kaelin Jr, Sir Peter J. Ratcliffe and Gregg L. Semenza.

The Nobel Prize in Physics

Awarded for “contributions to our understanding of the evolution of the universe and Earth’s place in the cosmos”. One half of the prize went to James Peebles “for theoretical discoveries in physical cosmology, and the other half was jointly awarded to Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz “for the discovery of an exoplanet orbiting a solar-type star”.

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Awarded to John B. Goodenough, M. Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino “for their contributions to the development of the lithium-ion battery.” This rechargeable battery laid the foundation of wireless electronics such as mobile phones and laptops. It also makes a fossil fuel-free world possible, as it is used for everything from powering electric cars to storing energy from renewable sources.

 The Nobel Prize in Literature

Awarded to the Austrian author, Peter Handke, “for an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience.” This has been the source of much public outrage and scandal as, in the words of PEN America, an organization that promotes literary freedom of expression, they found it ‘dumbfounding’ to honour a writer “who has used his public voice to undercut historical truth and offer public succor to perpetrators of genocide.”

The Nobel Prize in Peace 

Awarded to the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali “for his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea”. The prize is also meant to recognise all the stakeholders working for peace and reconciliation in Ethiopia and in the East and Northeast African regions.

The Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences

Awarded “for their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty” to Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer. This research has considerably improved our ability to fight global poverty, and in just two decades, their new experiment-based approach has transformed development economics, now a flourishing field of research.

For more information on this year’s Nobel Prizes visit this website.