Nobel and Oscar: the candidates and the winners

Nobel prize

One important signifier of reputation is the receipt of a prominent award or honor in one’s discipline or community. It is difficult to deny that Nobel prize can be identified with being ranked as #1. The Nobel prize takes its name from Alfred Nobel, a chemist, inventor, engineer, entrepreneur, and author who invented dynamite and held 355 patents during his lifetime. In his will, Alfred Nobel set aside his fortune to fund prizes for outstanding achievements in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and humanitarian or peace-related work. Since 1901, the Royal Swedish Academy for Sciences, the Karolinska Instituet, the Swedish Academy, and a committee elected by the Norwegian Parliament have been responsible for awarding the Nobel prizes, and in 1968, the Sveriges Riksbank established a prize in economic sciences that is awarded alongside the Nobel prizes. (There is a recurring gossip about the reason why there is no Nobel prize in mathematics. Different versions of the rumor claim that it is due to an eventual rivalry over a woman between Magnus Gösta Mittag-Leffle, the leading Swedish mathematician and Nobel. The rumor seems to be unjustified 29. To date, 590 Nobel Prizes have been awarded to 935 Nobel laureates.

The nomination and selection process The nomination and selection process for Nobel laureates takes over a year and involves dozens of reviews and expert consultations to determine the winner(s) in each prize category. In all categories but the Nobel Peace Prize, nominations are accepted by invitation only, and nomination forms are sent out in September of the year preceding the awarding of the Prize. Invitations for nominations are typically sent to selected professors at universities and to former Laureates, who have until January 31 of the following year to submit their nominations. The process typically generates about 250􀀀350 unique nominees, and consultation with experts proceeds for several months to assess the worthiness of each candidate. Over the summer, the Nobel Committee writes a report to be submitted in September to the institution responsible for awarding the particular Nobel Prize, and in October a winner is selected through majority vote and announced. Prizes are then awarded in December.

Literature prize: from betting to scandal In the last fifteen years or so, the big sports betting company, Ladbrokes has begun taking bets to the literature prizes in their on-line menu. So you can bet, who will win the Nobel Prize in Literature. (Only in literature, probably the others attract much less public attention.) Bookmakers at betting companies set fixed odds on all horses in a specific race, or on the result of soccer games. Betting became a big industry and even bigger business. The duty of a Nobel Prize bookmaker is particularly challenging. If you bet for sports events, you have a lot of data about past achievements, actual injuries, etc. Predictions based on finding patterns in data are not terribly bad. For the prize in literature, I am note sure. You should have a behavioral model of the committee. Betting for the Nobel prize somehow reflect people’s demand, and we could not exclude, that the selection committee does not totally neglect the public opinion. Well, we have a long list of unlikely non-winners (Tolstoy, Chekhov, Proust, Kafka, Virginia Woolf, Joyce, Nabokov).

In 2017 Kazuo Ishiguro was awarded for his ”novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.” Margaret
Atwood, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and Haruki Murakami had better odds, still Ishiguro’s win was approved by the community.
Is there any collusion between the selection and the betting process? I would have liked to bet that it isn’t. The committee receives annually about two hundred nominations from literary nobilities. Maybe ten-fifteen percent are first-time nominees. I might be wrong, that I believe that first-time nominees had initially a better chance than now. Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941; NP: 1913), Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951; NP:1930, Pearl Buck (1892-1973; NP:1938, Bertrand Russell (1872-1970; NP:1950) and William Faulkner (1897-1962; NP:1949) were awarded Nobel Prize in Literature after being nominated in one year only. The ugly sex and leakage scandal 30, which led to the cancellation of the award in 2018 might have a cataclysmic consequences
for the Nobel prize in literature. We will see.

The illusion and manipulation of objectivity: Is there any gender bias? As noted above, 935 individuals have received Nobel Prizes since the Prize’s inception in 1901. Yet only 51 women have received the Prize (Marie Curie won twice), meaning that less than 6% of Nobel Prize winners were or are women. In the sciences, the chemist and science writer Magdolna Hargittai notes, that figure is even smaller, with just 19 women receiving the prize in physics, chemistry, or medicine or physiology since its inception. This abysmally low number has led some to suggest that the Nobel Prize exhibits a gender bias against female scientists. Certainly, there have been female scientists that have been overlooked for Nobel Prizes during the nomination and selection process, but it may be the case that the relatively low number of women who have been awarded the Nobel Prize is attributable more to implicit bias than explicit discrimination. Stereotypes discouraging women from pursuing education and careers in STEM fields have helped the number of women receiving doctoral degrees in physics, chemistry, and medicine relatively low in comparison to their male counterparts, and although these numbers are increasing, they remain lower than population statistics would suggest. Take physics as an example: according to the American Institute of Physics, in 1975 women earned just 5% of PhDs in physics, and they still earn only 18% of PhDs in physics. If less than one in five physics PhDs is awarded to a woman, the odds of being awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics has shrunk significantly for a woman. Even after PhDs are awarded, implicit bias manifests itself in the barriers that women face to hiring and publication, as studies show that women are more likely to be judged on superficial qualities like appearance and personal information than the quality of their scholarship. In terms of publication, women are less likely to be cited than men and their research is more likely to be attributed to men, and they are underrepresented in journal editorships. Both of these factors work against the likelihood that women will be invited to speak at conferences to present their findings or to be nominated for awards. Since the Nobel selection committees refuse to publish information about nominees until 50 years after the nomination has been submitted, it is difficult to assess the rate at which women are nominated for Nobel Prizes in STEM fields, but based on the state of gender representation in physics, chemistry, and medicine, there is a good chance that women are not being nominated at the same rate as men are. If we acknowledge the kinds of institutionalized biases that greet women at every step of their careers, it is less surprising that so few women have received Nobel Prizes in STEM fields. Although bias certainly exists, the nature of implicit bias is such that it is nearly impossible to pinpoint at which stage in a woman’s career her chances of receiving a Nobel Prize were diminished, and it may be the case that the bottleneck occurs well before names ever reach the Nobel Prize committees.

One thought on “Nobel and Oscar: the candidates and the winners”

  1. 1. You should always relate the percentage of women Nobel prize winners to the actual percentage of women researchers, I am sure the result will differ from the one you have stated.
    2. Mittag-LeffleR. About the urban legend see also the research by M. T. Beck:
    3. Here or elsewhere please remeber the Field medal, Wolff prize, Kyoto medal – compensations for mathematicians, although the second two are given to normal people, as well.
    4. Russell for literature – Eli Wiesel for Peace is a counterpart.
    5. It would make you less popular if you mentioned a dozen persons to have obtained the prize in Literature and nobody knows them. Scandinavian writers are overrepresented 🙂
    6. What about the discussion on the number of Hungarian prize winners? Does this phenomenon exist in any other country?


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