Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Physics Division

Physics Division Seminars

Physics Division Seminars bring us speakers on a variety of physics related subjects. Usually these are held in the Building 6008 large Conference Room, at 3:00 pm on the chosen day, but times and locations may vary. For more information, contact our seminar chairman,

Alfredo Galindo-Uribarri
Tel (Office): (865) 574-6124  (FAX): (865) 574-1268

Tue., April 20, 2004, at 11:00 a.m.

The Politics of Excellence: Behind the Nobel Prize in Science

Robert Marc Friedman, University of Oslo, Norway
4500N, Wigner Auditorium

As icon, myth, and ritual, the Nobel Prize is well secured. Yet, the realities of nomination, evaluation, and selection remain obscure. Based on extensive research, using the archives of the Nobel Committees for Physics and Chemistry,  I explore in my recent book the history of why and how individuals used the Nobel Prize to further particular scientific, cultural, and personal agendas.
Success or failure in winning a prize has not depended upon timeless, fixed standards of excellence. Rather, the changing priorities and agendas of committee members, as well as their comprehension of scientific accomplishment have been critical. Some committee members tried to be dispassionate; others championed their own agendas, some openly and some cunningly. By examining the process by which choices were made, disputed, and resolved, it becomes possible to replace illusion and myth with understanding. Without such a history, critical debate and reflection on the prize has lacked a fulcrum.
         Looking behind-the-scenes in the committees and the Academy enables us not only to understand the working of the Prize, but also to examine the changing value system of science.  Alfred Nobel stipulated that his prizes should be awarded to those who confer the greatest benefit on mankind. What did Nobel intend? How did committee members interpret it, how ought we understand it today?  What is the meaning of such prizes in a culture characterized by intense competition for resources, commercialism, and hype.  How should we rethink and even reclaim Alfred Nobel's legacy?
Robert Marc Friedman is professor of history of science at University of Oslo. Trained at Johns Hopkins University, and until recently associated with the University of California at San Diego, Friedman is a specialist on the relations of modern science with society.