Every year for about a decade I served as one of three judges for an annual school speech contest at my wife’s school.  I got to listen to three minute speeches by third through fifth graders on a set topic.  We judges were given a sheet of paper listing the various criteria that we were to use in judging the speeches, and we assigned or took away points on everything from the length of the speech—points were taken off if it went too long or too short—to whether it was on topic or “engaging.”  At the end of the thirty or so speeches, we three judges conferred in a quiet room, comparing the scores we gave and determining where we agreed and where we didn’t and eventually agreeing on who would win first, second and third prize.

            The decision was somewhat subjective, despite the criteria we were given to go on. 

            In contrast, back in the day when my middle daughter played AYSO soccer, all her team had to do to win was score more goals than the other team.  The rules of the game are clear; the referees have guidelines that are not subjective, though perhaps subject to a certain amount of human error.  But overwhelmingly, there is no subjectivity at all to who wins or loses a soccer game.

            The Nobel prizes have recently been awarded for this year.  Who wins is determined less like a soccer game and more like a speech contest.  The Nobel Prize was established in 1895 by the will and estate of the Swedish chemist and inventor, Alfred Nobel.  It was first awarded in 1901.  At that time, there were a total of six prizes.  They were given in Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Literature and Peace.  Beginning in 1969 Sweden’s central bank established “The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel,” so that ever since there are now seven prizes given annually, the seventh being the Nobel Prize for Economics.

            So who picks the winners for these prizes each year?  Experts in the various fields send nominations to the various committees in charge of the respective prizes—except for the peace prize.   Those who can nominate for the peace prize include members of national assemblies, governments, and members of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, university professors of history, political science, philosophy, law and theology, and former recipients.  Nominations must be submitted to the committees by February 1 of the year in question.  The prizes in physics, chemistry and economics  are made by a committee of five members elected by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.  For the prize in literature, a committee of four or five members of the Swedish Academy makes the pick.  For the prize in medicine, the committee is made up of five members selected by the Nobel Assembly, which consists of fifty members elected by the Karolinska Institutet, one of Europe’s largest medical universities.

            The Peace Prize is handled a bit differently from the other prizes.  The committee that picks the winner is made up of five people who have been appointed by the Norwegian Parliament: that is, the selection for the Nobel Peace Prize is made by Norwegian politicians. 

            All the prizes have had some amount of controversy associated with them, but most of the dust ups have been reserved for just two of them.  The Nobel Peace Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature have a long history of controversy, with charges of politics, bias, and notorious snubs.  For instance, Gandhi was nominated for the Peace Prize four times but never won. Meanwhile, an unrepentant terrorist named Yasser Arafat did, as did the current occupant of the White House for no discernible reason at all.  The Prize for Literature, meanwhile, has been awarded mostly to European writers. In fact, more Swedish authors have won the prize than all Asian writers combined.  Leo Tolstoy, James Joyce and Mark Twain, just as examples of well-known and important authors, were never given the prize.

            Alfred Nobel, who established all the prizes, was born in 1833 and died in 1896.  He was a noted chemist, engineer and innovator.  He also invented dynamite and owned Bofors, a  major armaments manufacturer.  A premature publication in 1888 of his obituary by a French newspaper—an obituary that condemned him for his invention of dynamite and called him a merchant of death—may have influenced him to try to find a better legacy for himself.  One of the women in his life, Bertha Kinsky who served briefly as his secretary in 1876 before leaving to marry Baron Arthur Gudaccar von Suttner, continued to correspond with him up until his death in 1896.  It is believed that she may also have influenced him to create the Peace Prize—which was awarded to her in 1905 for “her sincere peace activities.”