Though it is rarely billed as such, December 10 is perhaps the world's foremost geek holiday, because it's the date upon which the Nobel Prizes are conferred each year. Recognizing the foremost scholars (in many cases, math-science nerds) in a half-dozen fields of study and distinction, the Nobels are arguably the most prestigious awards on the planet.
Which is probably why the history of Nobel Prizes is so steeped in quirks and controversies.
The average layperson is probably aware that the Nobels are named after, and endowed by the estate of, Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel, the man who invented dynamite and who created the prizes as a posthumous apology for all the persons, places, and things that got blown up by his signature invention. What most folks don't know is that the modern Nobel Prizes don't precisely match up to the awards specified in old Alfred's will.
First of all, Alfred Nobel only endowed five Nobel Prizes: Chemistry, Literature, Medicine, Peace, and Physics. The sixth Nobel, the one for distinction in Economics, is actually the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. In other words, somebody besides Alfred Nobel created and endows the Economics Prize, even though it's awarded alongside, and referred to as one of, the original Nobels. Secondly, Nobel specifically requested that the awards go to individuals who accomplished something significant in the preceding year, but the Nobel committees generally ignore this rule for every prize except the Peace Prize, as scientific and literary accomplishments are best measured and appreciated over several years.
This brings us to a larger controversy: The debates over who should or should not have received Nobel Prizes, contrary to those who actually did or didn't earn a Nobel medal. Rosalind Franklin, who was instrumental in the discovery of the structure of DNA, and iconic Indian peace activist Mahatma Gandhi are perhaps the most famous examples of Nobel Prize oversights, though they are far from the only ones. Several worthy German recipients were prohibited from receiving the Nobels that they actually won during World War II because Adolf Hitler forbade any German citizen from accepting the award during his rule. And Hitler's Nobel interference hardly stops there, as Nazi Germany's activities actually caused two scientists to receive the only pair of "recycled" Nobel medals in history.
WHO ARE THE ONLY NOBEL RECIPIENTS TO POSSESS "RECYCLED" NOBEL MEDALS?Get the answer.
Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can also follow him on his personal blog.