Anyone older than a teenager knows that fashion is fickle, fame is transitory, and reputations rise and fall. In literature, many of the winners of the Nobel prize for literature, inaugurated in 1901, are now forgotten writers, even in their original languages. Who bothers to read the Nobel laureates Sully Prudhomme (1901), Carl Verner von Heidenstam (1915), Grazia Deledda (1926), or Pearl Buck (1938), for example?
In science, Stephen Hawking is perhaps the only living scientist who is a household name like Marie Curie, Charles Darwin, and Albert Einstein. He is often regarded as a genius. But Hawking's reputation undoubtedly has more to do with his much-publicized triumph over his disability, his bestselling book A Brief History of Time and the mind-boggling nature of cosmology, than with the importance of Hawking's scientific work, which is not rated exceptionally high by his peers. Though eligible for a Nobel prize as a physicist, Hawking has not been awarded one. Nor has he been awarded the top prize in mathematics, the Fields Medal.
Are the Nobel prizes a corrective to fashion, fame, and celebrity--a true record of genius born in the 19th and 20th centuries, as their founder Alfred Nobel, who detested celebrity, hoped for in his will? Certainly, Nobel prizes neither reward, nor confer, celebrity: very few of us can name from memory all, or most, of the previous year's Nobel prize winners, even in the widely accessible fields of literature and peace. Very likely, the prizes bolster the concept of genius, by creating a seemingly magic circle of winners, and excluding the vast majority of workers in the field, however eminent they may be.
The prizes fulfil their purpose well in the sciences, though much less well in literature, peace, and economics. Indeed, there have been calls for the economics prize, started only in 1968 by the Central Bank of Sweden and therefore not officially a Nobel prize, to be abolished, including several calls from past winners of the prize.
The literature prize has been adversely affected by several difficulties. In his will of 1896, Nobel directed that the prize be given for ‘distinguished work of an idealistic tendency'. This phrase was initially interpreted by the judges of the Swedish Academy to rule out of consideration many great writers such as Henrik Ibsen, Leo Tolstoy, and Emile Zola, though the interpretation of ‘idealistic' was later changed, giving the prize a much improved record after the second world war than in its first half-century.
Then there is the lack of sufficient expertise in languages among the judges, so that their decision is based partly on reading a writer's work in translation rather than in its original language (the case with the first Asian Nobel prize, for Rabindranath Tagore, who wrote chiefly in Bengali but was judged on his English translations). As the circle of literatures under consideration has gradually widened beyond the major European languages to include the languages of Asia and Africa, this linguistic barrier has become almost insuperable.
Most importantly of all, writers take time, sometimes decades, to establish themselves; and their reputations can take still longer to grow. The temptation for the Nobel judges is to wait until a writer is old and long past the period of his or her best work; inevitably death sometimes intervenes before the prize can be awarded, as happened with Marcel Proust, Rainer Maria Rilke, and D. H. Lawrence.
The science prizes do not suffer from these difficulties. For the most part, original scientific theories and key experiments are recognized as such by the scientific community within a decade or two. Moreover, the prizes are frequently shared between two or a maximum of three winners (which still entails difficult and sometimes controversial judgements about whom to exclude).
Nonetheless, there can be long gaps between the date of an original scientific achievement and its Nobel recognition. The Nobel physics committee resisted giving Einstein a prize for over a decade, and eventually awarded him the prize for 1921 not for his 1905 relativity theory, which was considered too controversial, but for quite different theoretical work on quantum theory that other scientists had proved in the laboratory. The astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar had to wait half a century before receiving his prize in 1983 for work he had done in 1934.
Large swathes of intellectual activity are of course ineligible for a Nobel prize. (As are music, painting and sculpture, the performing arts, and cinema.) Biology and mathematics are excluded, so are philosophy, psychology, social science, political science, and history. While this is obviously the consequence of Alfred Nobel's personal choice in his will, it is also a reflection of the difficulty of judging ‘genius' in some of these fields. Not a few leading thinkers have proved fruitful for the advancement of knowledge, despite their ideas being wrong. This is true of some aspects of Darwin's biology, many aspects of Karl Marx's political thinking, and perhaps most of Freud's theory of psychoanalysis. Yet, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote of Marx's theory of history and society: ‘Even if all its specific conclusions were proved false, its importance in creating a wholly new attitude to social and historical questions, and so opening new avenues of human knowledge, would be unimpaired.' And the psychiatrist Anthony Storr said similarly of Freud: ‘Even if every idea which Freud put forward could be proven wrong, we should still be greatly in his debt. ... He did cause a revolution in the way we think.' If Berlin and Storr are right, then it is at least arguable that Marx and Freud should each be regarded as a genius like Darwin.