Opening address – 2004

The Nobel Prize Award Ceremony 2004

Speech by Professor Bengt Samuelsson, Chairman of the Board of Directors, The Nobel Foundation

Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Honoured Nobel Laureates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

On behalf of the Nobel Foundation, I welcome you to this year’s Prize Award Ceremony. We would especially like to welcome the Laureates of 2004 to the Nobel Festivities in Stockholm. I hope that in the course of the Nobel Week, you have felt our appreciation and admiration of your achievements. It is the importance of your work that determines the international reputation of the Nobel Prizes. Earlier today, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded in Oslo to Wangari Maathai from Kenya “for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.”

The process leading to the Nobel Prize Awards is a well tested, but not sufficiently well known procedure, developed right from the inception of the Prize. The prize-awarding institutions elect Nobel Committees in the respective field. From the very beginning, the Committees have made great efforts to attract active participation from the international community all around the world, thereby strengthening the cosmopolitan mission of the Nobel Prize epitomized in the crucial words of Alfred Nobel in his last will: “It is my express wish that in awarding the prizes no consideration whatever shall be given to the nationality of the candidates…”

The Statutes of the Nobel Foundation prescribe specific, but wide audiences, which are entitled to nominate. But in addition, the Nobel Committees actively invite nominations from universities and other centers of knowledge globally. As a result a very extensive material is delivered to the Committees, with nominated names running into several hundreds each year. The work done by the members of the Nobel Committees is therefore of a remarkable breadth and depth. In the process of evaluation, foreign experts are also invited to contribute their analyses, further strengthening the international character of the Prizes. As this whole body of documents is classified for at least 50 years, it is impossible to give a concrete picture of the extent and quality of the work done by the Committees. However, I would like to take this opportunity to express, on behalf of the Nobel Foundation, our gratitude to the prize-awarding institutions, and in particular to their Nobel Committees, for their extremely proficient and devoted work. It is somewhat of an invisible part of the iceberg on which the Nobel Prize system is based.

Can the history of the Nobel Prize be seen as a mirror of twentieth-century science and culture? “For now we see through a glass, darkly…” The Bible’s words probably refer to the surface-ground, brightly polished bronze mirrors that were common in ancient times: they gave a fuzzy but fair reflection of the world around them. Is the same true of the Nobel Prize? Does it reflect the scientific and cultural history of the twentieth century?

It must initially be said that the Nobel Prize first and foremost reflects Western conceptions in the late nineteenth century, rather than in the twentieth. Alfred Nobel was a man of his time, and his famous will of 1895 came to consolidate in legal form a number of ideas on progress, science, culture and peace and carry them into the twentieth century. Now, more than a hundred years on, these fin de siècle ideas are even stronger and more vivid, very much thanks to the annual award of the Nobel Prize.

Maybe it is not so much the Nobel Prize as the criticism of it that reflects twentieth-century science and culture. Among the annual critics’ most frequent allegations is that women have been treated unfairly. It is true that only 11 out of the 494 Nobel Prizes in Physics, Chemistry and Physiology or Medicine given between 1901 and 2003 have gone to women – that is, only slightly more than 2%. If we include the Nobel Prizes in Literature and Peace, the statistics are better, but not much: 31 of all the 705 Nobel Prizes awarded between 1901 and 2003 were given to women – that is, a bit more than 4%.

A mirror is a device which instantly, at the velocity of light, depicts and gives a true image of an object or a phenomenon – but as far as the Nobel Prize as a mirror of twentieth-century science and culture is concerned, there is a time lapse. The science prizes are awarded for discoveries which on average were made several decades back in time. The Nobel Prizes of today therefore reflect the development of science in the 1970s and 1980s.

In the same way, the proportion of female Nobel Laureates today reflects the situation of women in Academia that prevailed in the 1970s and 1980s. If we also consider the availability to women of post-graduate education, higher positions and research grants, the critical date is even further back in time: then the prizes of today reflect the opportunities open to a woman in the academic world of the 1950s and 1960s. Earlier Nobel Prizes reflect her opportunities in the first half of the twentieth century and even the late nineteenth century, and in that perspective the low proportion is less astonishing.

It is instructive to remember that in Sweden, for example, young women were not admitted to universities until 1870, and even then not to the faculties of Law and Divinity, as they were considered not to have “a sufficiently developed sense of justice.” The first woman to be named a professor in Sweden in 1884 was the mathematician Sonya Kovalevskaya, but she was a foreigner, and was appointed at the private University College of Stockholm. At the main state universities the first female professors were appointed only in 1939 at Karolinska Institutet, in 1949 at Uppsala University, and as late as in 1965 at Lund University.

So it is no surprise that the Nobel Prizes do not differ in this respect from twentieth-century Western society in general. The Nobel system reflects the asymmetry that has existed and still exists in the academic world, and, nota bene, moreover, with this time lapse. We have no reason to expect there to be a larger proportion of female Nobel Laureates than, for example, the proportion of female professors of science at the universities in the twentieth century.

Nevertheless, interestingly enough, the demand is heard every year that the proportion of female Nobel Laureates today ought to be higher, that the Nobel Prize should reflect the changed view of today rather than the reality of several decades ago. In this criticism we can perhaps see a sign of the status of the Nobel Prize as “a desperately needed symbol of authority and coherence in an age when all standards are under attack,” as Dr. Burton Feldman put it.

This year, however, is remarkable. With the Nobel Prizes awarded today to Linda B. Buck in Physiology or Medicine, to Elfriede Jelinek in Literature, and to Wangari Maathai in Peace, the proportion of women in the Nobel population of the twenty-first century has increased significantly. If the history of the Nobel Prize during its first century was a reflection of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century values, maybe this year’s awards are a glimpse of the changes we will see during this century.

Alfred Nobel realized the importance of science in the evolution of our world. The world we live in today is in many ways the work of humans, a world where science is everywhere. Modern society has become so dependent on science that its very foundation is based on scientific progress.

Today as we honour the prize winners of 2004, we remember Alfred Nobel and his visionary will. The Laureates have indeed worked in the spirit of Alfred Nobel and made important contributions to the benefit of mankind.

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 2004

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