All about the Nobel Prizes: how the world’s most coveted prize works

How do the Nobel Prizes work? How are they decided? Here's how the world's most coveted prizes are awarded, where they go and how much they're worth

The Nobel Prize was established in 1901 by Swedish scientist and entrepreneur Alfred Nobel. It is in the chemist's testamentary bequest that the categories of the Nobel Prizes are defined: "All my property shall be distributed as follows: the capital shall be distributed annually in the form of a prize to those who, in the preceding year, have conferred the greatest benefits on mankind".

The Nobel Prize in Economics, on the other hand, was established later, in 1968, by the Swedish Central Bank "in memory of Alfred Nobel".

How the Nobel Prizes are decided

The Nobel Prizes are announced each year in October to be distributed to the winners at a ceremony in December. Beginning in 1901, the awarding of prizes has been interrupted only during World War I and World War II, in the periods 1914-18 and 1939-45.

A Nobel Prize may be shared by a maximum of three individuals, or, only in the case of the Nobel Peace Prize, it may be granted to an organization.

The Nobel Prizes in Physics and Chemistry are announced annually at the Swedish Academy of Sciences, the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, and the Nobel Peace Prize is chosen from among five individuals selected by the Norwegian parliament.

In order to enter the shortlist of candidates for the Nobel Prizes, it is necessary to be nominated by a special committee: the Nobel Prize Committee requests, in strict confidence and by letter, a list of nominations to some important personalities in the field of science, often scientists already awarded the Nobel Prize in the past. Si tratta di circa tremila pareri per ogni premio Nobel, che scendono a circa 600 per il Nobel alla Letteratura, che aprono la strada ad un processo di selezione di qualche mese.

Esistono diverse commissioni, come quella "dei diciotto" della Swedish Academy che si occupa dei Nobel per la Letteratura, e quella – composta da 55 accademici del Comitato Nobel – che decreta i premiati per le categorie Medicina e Fisiologia, Fisica e Chimica.

Il Nobel per la Pace è l’unico ad essere assegnato in Norvegia, ad Oslo, e viene decretato ricorrendo ad un ristretto comitato di 5 membri, il Norwegian Nobel Committee.
Il processo di selezione dei premi Nobel è così riservato da poter essere rivelato soltanto cinquanta anni dopo l’annuncio del premio.

Il premio Nobel in numeri

Tra il 1901 ed il 2020, sono stati assegnati 603 premi Nobel, per un totale di 962 scienziati e 28 organizzazioni premiati. To date, 57 Nobel Prizes have gone to female scientists and writers: Marie Curie won two, one for Physics in 1903 and one for Chemistry in 1911.

In 2020, both the Nobel Prize for Physics and the Nobel Prize for Chemistry went to female scientists: to physicist Andrea Ghez "for the discovery of a compact supermassive object at the center of our galaxy," and to Charpentier and Doudna's research "for the development of a method of genome editing."

To date, only two Nobel Prizes have refused the recognition: Jean-Paul Sartre, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964 but was not the type to accept official honors, and Le Duc Tho, who won with Kissinger the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1973 for the agreements reached in the Vietnam War and who justified with the situation in Vietnam his personal difficulty in accepting the recognition.

Other important personalities awarded with the Nobel Prize were denied to receive the prize: it is the case of some German scientists awarded when Hitler was in power in Germany, but also of the Nobel Prize for Literature Boris Pasternak, who in 1958 was invited by the Soviet authorities to decline the prize.

It has also happened that the Nobel Prize has gone to personalities who were imprisoned at the time of the proclamation, as happened for the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Aung San Suu Kyi and Liu Xiaobo.

To date, the economic value of a Nobel Prize is about 980,000 euros, 10 million Swedish kronor. Most of the prizes are historically located in the United States, which has won 265; followed by the United Kingdom with 89 and Germany with 63 prizes. Italy, at the moment, is stopped at 20 Nobel Prizes.