With so many deserving luminaries, choosing the Nobel Prize winners is never a cut-and-dried endeavour
2023’s Nobel Prize awards in the sciences, literature and for peace were announced in early October. There were some surprises.
The story goes that Swedish chemist, engineer and inventor Alfred Nobel, having developed a highly valuable, stable explosive product – dynamite – that had made it possible for miners and builders to use the extraordinarily unstable but explosive compound nitroglycerin much more safely, was filled with remorse over its possibilities for use in warfare.
As a result, he left his fortune to support annual awards to people who had achieved important advances in the sciences and medicine. But he also made provision for awards for literature and peace. Over time, those two awards have gained the most attention by the global community, and the announcements of the winners gain the world’s attention.
This year’s winners for physiology or medicine went to Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman for discoveries that led to the development of effective vaccines against Covid-19.
The award for physics was shared by three scientists — Pierre Agostini, Ferenc Krausz and Anne L’Huillier — for their work on the properties of electrons.
The award for chemistry was given to Moungi Bawendi, Louis E Brus and Alexei Ekimov for the discovery and development of quantum dots, nanoparticles so small their size determines their properties. The literature prize went to Norway’s Jon Fosse and the peace prize was awarded to Narges Mohammadi, an imprisoned Iranian activist.
‘An ideal direction’
A recent addition to the Nobel franchise has been an economics memorial prize, in honour of Nobel, but awarded by Sweden’s Riksbank. While there was no provision for a Nobel prize in pure mathematics, the Fields Medal is sometimes viewed as a roughly equivalent honour. That medal is awarded to two, three or four mathematicians under 40 years of age at the International Mathematical Union’s International Congress every four years.
The Nobel prizes were first awarded in 1901, with the Nobel literature award intended for a person who has created a body of work heading in an “ideal direction”. The meaning of that short phrase has generated debate for decades. The statutes governing the awards defined literature as “not only belles-lettres, but also other writings which, by virtue of their form and style, possess literary value”. At the same time, the restriction to works presented “during the preceding year” was softened and older works could be considered “if their significance has not become apparent until recently”.
While the science awards generally have not provoked major disagreements about who won and who was ignored, it is different for the literature prize. Authors not honoured but who were still alive when the prizes began to be awarded include Tolstoy, Chekhov, Gorky, Ibsen, Strindberg, Zola, Proust, Kafka, Rilke, Brecht, Croce, Hardy, Henry James, Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, DH Lawrence, George Orwell, Stefan Zweig, and García Lorca. On the other hand, Sully Prudhomme, José Echegaray, Rudolf Eucken, Paul von Heyse, Verner von Heidenstam, Wladyslaw Reymont, Grazia Deledda, Erik Axel Karlfeldt, Frans Sillanpää and Halldór Laxness have all received one over the years.
We should add that South African playwright Athol Fugard must surely merit serious consideration for the literature award, given his decades of work pointing towards that “ideal direction” – and his increasing age and frailness. But then so might another South African novelist/playwright Zanemvula Kizito Gatyeni “Zakes” Mda be considered, as should Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiongo.
The prize’s website notes: “As guidelines for the distribution of the Literature Prize, the Swedish Academy had the general requirement for all the prizes – the candidate should have bestowed ‘the greatest benefit on mankind’ – and the special condition for literature, ‘in an ideal direction’.” By common understanding, despite some pursed lips about giving the award to a songwriter, a case could be made for recent winner Bob Dylan for his large body of work and its place as the voice of several generations and the messages within them, despite his gravelly voice, that heads in that ideal direction.
For the Peace Prize, according to Nobel’s will, that is to be awarded to the person who in the preceding year “shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses”.
In recent years, there has been a shift towards awards for individuals – or organisations – defending human rights, freedom of expression and free speech in the face of authoritarian or oppressive regimes.
The three science and medicine awards have generally been the subject of less controversy, although in recent years, the prize awarded to James Watson and Francis Crick for unravelling the structure of the DNA molecule has come under some significant criticism for failing to have included Rosalind Franklin. Her work had been instrumental in analysing the structure of that molecule through X-ray techniques that proved critical to the two men’s success. This oversight cannot, now, be addressed because prizes must go to living individuals, and Franklin died years ago.
For the medicine and physiology award, Karikó and Weissman identified a chemical tweak to messenger RNA. Their work has enabled potent Covid vaccines to be created in under a year, precluding millions of needless deaths and helping the globe recover from the most fearsome pandemic in a century.
Paradoxically, these same advances have helped fuel the anti-vaccine movement in many nations as vaccine deniers have fastened on to that rapid development of vaccines to undermine public trust.
The New York Times reported: “The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded on Wednesday to Moungi G Bawendi, Louis E Brus and Alexei I Ekimov for being pioneers of the nanoworld. The new laureates discovered and developed quantum dots, semiconductors made of particles squeezed so small that their electrons barely have room to breathe.
“Semiconductors are crystals that help power our electronics. But while traditional crystals may be quite large at the molecular level, a quantum dot consists of just a few thousand atoms squished into a space just a few nanometers across. The difference in size between a quantum dot and a soccer ball is about the same as the difference between a soccer ball and the Earth, the Nobel Foundation said. … Quantum dots are now used to tune the colours in LED lights and improve the brilliance of television screens. They can also be used as fluorescent imaging tools in biomedical applications, such as identifying cancerous tissue. Quantum dots are expected to lead to advances in electronics, solar cells and encrypted quantum information.”
The Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Agostini, Krausz and L’Huillier on Tuesday for techniques that illuminate the subatomic realm of electrons, providing a new perspective into a previously unexplored domain.
Electrons move at a whopping 43 miles (about 70km) a second, making them virtually impossible to study. The three scientists developed techniques to use short light pulses to capture an electron’s movement at a single moment in time.
The literature prize went to Norwegian novelist, poet and playwright Fosse. Fosse has been slowly building a growing audience internationally for works that grapple with themes of ageing, mortality, love and art and the prize committee explained his award came “for his innovative plays and prose which give voice to the unsayable”.
On Thursday, Anders Olsson, chairman of the Nobel literature committee, had praised “Fosse’s sensitive language, which probes the limits of words”.
Fosse’s works have now been translated into around 50 languages and his plays are widely performed. But, crucially, he has been slow to gain acclaim in the English-speaking world. Still, A New Name: Septology VI-VII was a finalist for a National Book Award in 2022 and two novels were nominated for the International Booker Prize. As he is the first Norwegian to win the award in more than a hundred years, this award will undoubtedly be sending many to their nearest bookstore to find his writings.
Finally, of course, is the Nobel Peace Prize, the award that for most people is the most visible, most important and, in many ways, the most consequential –as well as the easiest to understand.
This year, Mohammadi, an Iranian activist now serving a 10-year sentence in an Iranian prison, received the award “for her fight against the oppression of women in Iran and her fight to promote human rights and freedom for all”.
The award comes in the wake of major women-led protests in Mohammadi’s nation over the death in police custody of a 22-year-old who had been arrested by the country’s morality police. In these protests, it is being reported that hundreds have been killed in the ensuing crackdown and around 20,000 people have been arrested, per a UN calculation.
The Nobel Committee said of her award: “This year’s peace prize also recognises the hundreds of thousands of people who, in the preceding year, have demonstrated against Iran’s theocratic regime’s policies of discrimination and oppression targeting women. The motto adopted by the demonstrators — ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ — suitably expresses the dedication and work of Narges Mohammadi.”
This year’s awardee, according to the Times, “has reported extensively about government abuse in Iran and organised protests and other forms of civil disobedience while imprisoned, [and] vowed to stay in Iran and continue her activism, even if that meant spending the rest of her life in prison”.
For her part, the awardee has said: “Standing alongside the brave mothers of Iran, I will continue to fight against the relentless discrimination, tyranny and gender-based oppression by the oppressive religious government until the liberation of women.”
Notwithstanding the general enthusiasm for Mohammadi’s well-deserved award, some have criticised the committee for not recognising yet others in the Middle East who have also laboured on similar challenges in their own nations, and similarly in the face of government crackdowns and pressures.
Dr Zeynep Tufekci, a contributing opinion writer for the Times, writes that “in Saudi Arabia and other gulf states, [other] brave women have also fought against gender oppression and been imprisoned, restrained and silenced. Despite a handful of recent reforms in the region, women still face legal, social and political restrictions and oppression.
“When a great western institution condemns Iran and overlooks repression by its neighbours, reactionaries in the region can use this selectivity to paint those struggling for women’s rights as mere policy pawns for western interests. The very prize that’s supposed to recognise the cause of these brave women instead ends up as a symbol of western indifference, hypocrisy and selective interest.
“Maybe next year the committee can rectify this oversight.”
Without necessarily agreeing that the committee tugged a forelock towards realpolitik concerns, Tufekci has a point. The peace award has been given jointly numerous times, especially in recent years, and might have been given that way again.
In addition to figuring out how to honour in some way all those extraordinary writers who died without being tapped by the Nobel Committee as well as rectifying the Peace Prize award to embrace more of the brave women in the Middle East, just think about this for a moment. The committee might also want to keep some space on the honours wall for anyone who manages to bring the Russian invasion of Ukraine to an end in a way that allows the Ukrainians to begin to rebuild their nation and preserve its full sovereignty.
Or, even more imaginatively, consider who will need to be awarded a medal if there were an actual peaceful transition to the circumstances of the Middle East. We can dream. Sadly, perhaps, better to identify and consider all those brave women in the Middle East who push on despite the difficulties and obstacles in their respective paths. In the meantime, for this author, it will mean a trip to the bookstore for translated works by Jon Fosse. DM