The Worst And The Brightest

For a century, the Nobel Prizes have recognized achievement-- the good, the bad and the crazy

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Champagne corks will pop, phones will ring wildly, and once obscure academics will suddenly find themselves the object of a two-day media frenzy. That's the way it's been for much of the past 99 years, ever since the Nobel Prizes were first awarded in 1901. And that's how it will be again this week when the calls go out from Stockholm and the prize completes its first century. Winners are being announced in the fields of Physics, Chemistry and Physiology or Medicine, along with a relatively new category, Economics ("the dismal science"), added in 1969. The Nobel for Peace will also be announced this week; for Literature by month's end.

For the lucky handful of scientists who walk away with medals, life will never be the same. The first year, German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen collected 150,800 Swedish kronor (about $15,420 today) for the discovery of X rays. This year's prizes, given for what will almost certainly be more obscure achievements, will total more than $920,000 each. And that's not counting the market value of the gold medallion or the expenses-paid trip to Stockholm. After the ceremony, formerly impecunious researchers will find themselves awash in funding, showered with speaking gigs and offered their pick of jobs. Their opinions will be solicited on every subject under the sun, including matters light-years from their area of expertise.

For a prize widely considered the world's most prestigious, the Nobels had a surprisingly inauspicious beginning. Established under the will of 19th century munitions maker Alfred Bernhard Nobel (1833-1896), it was as much an attempt to redeem the reputation of its founder--best known in his day as the inventor of dynamite--as to award the accomplishments of its recipients. Nobel, a pacifist who liked to write poetry, had intended his explosive to be used mostly for peaceful purposes and was dismayed that it became so powerful an instrument of war. In 1888 a French newspaper--thinking it was Alfred and not his brother who had passed on--ran his obituary under the cutting headline "Le marchand de la mort est mort" (the merchant of death is dead). With the family name obviously in need of some burnishing, Nobel hit on the idea of his golden prize.

Nobel chose the original science categories--ones that reflected his interest in practical knowledge. (That's the reason there is no prize for pure mathematics, not--as the oft-told myth has it--because a prominent mathematician ran off with Nobel's girlfriend.) Over the past century, the Nobel committees have, by and large, done right by their eponym. Winners have included Albert Einstein, Marie Curie and Niels Bohr. But the prize has not always succeeded in covering itself--or its recipients--in glory. Nobel-worthy achievements have been overlooked. Dubious science has been rewarded--and later debunked. And some of the people honored with a Nobel have, truth be told, behaved less than honorably.