The Nobel Prize is a big deal. Want to know how I know? Because the Nobels are constantly invoked to signal the importance of other awards: The Turing Award is the “Nobel Prize of Computers,” the Pritzker Prize is the “Nobel Prize of Architecture,” and geography’s “Nobel” is named after the guy who named America after Amerigo Vespucci. In mathematics, the Abel Award and the Fields Medal compete over which is more worthy of a Nobel comparison. The Nobel Prize might as well be called the “Nobel Prize of Comparisons for Other Awards.” But how did it get this status? Like the winner of a decathlon, the Nobel Prize stands out for its superiority on a combination of factors, beginning with its unique origins, says Harriet Zuckerman, sociology professor emerita of Columbia University and author of Scientific Elite, a history of the Nobel Prizes.
From the beginning, the Nobel Prize attracted public attention in a way that no other scientific award had. It all began with a journalistic error. In 1888, a French newspaper mistakenly wrote that Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite, had died. It was actually his brother, Ludvig, who had passed. But, in addition to lackluster fact checking, the paper commemorated the event with defamatory prose: “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday,” it wrote. Nobel, it is said, was crushed by the idea that he’d be remembered as a “merchant of death.” In order to regain control of his legacy, he willed his fortune to create an award that would recognize people who had made positive contributions to mankind. Alfred Nobel was a celebrity, famous not only for his destructive invention, but also his reclusiveness. His will was made public a year after his death. The surprise announcement sparked a lot of interest from the outset, says Gustav Källstrand, senior curator at the Nobel Museum. “The fact that the inventor of dynamite had entrusted his money to create a peace prize, among other things, got a lot of people interested in the prize,” he said. The Nobel also attracted a lot of attention because of its huge cash prize. Scientists had been awarded medals, money, and even titles (How about a knighthood, Sir Isaac?) since at least the early Renaissance. But none of those awards came close to the Nobel’s purse. In the early days, it was worth about 20 years of an academic salary, and was the prototypical “genius award” that allowed scholars to freely pursue their interests. The prize money also gave the public a concrete way to comprehend what were (and still are) esoteric scientific discoveries, says Källstrand, who wrote a dissertation on how the Nobel became a bridge between science and society.