The Nobel prizes are still needed

Prizes continue to be relevant despite shortcomings

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As another pleasant fall slides into an awful and cruel winter, the kids prepare for Hallowe'en, their parents prepare to ignore another local election, a bright light shines as the Nobel Prizes are handed out. But should they matter?

The first prizes were awarded in 1901, the result of a large endowment left by Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite. He explained in his will that the money should be "annually distributed in the form of prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind." Originally there were five prizes: physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and peace. In 1968, the prize in economics was instituted by Sweden's Central Bank, in memory of Alfred Nobel. This year's prizes will be awarded from Mon., Oct. 8 to Mon., Oct. 15.

In accord with the enormous amount of attention it is receiving lately, climate change is expected to be the dominant force in the battle for arguably the most important of these awards, the peace prize. Championing climate change has led to the co-nomination of Sheila Watt-Cloutier--who would be the first Canadian to win since Lester B. Pearson in 1957--and former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, who enraged many when, at a U of C special event, he compared Alberta's oil sands with heroin addicts finding veins between their toes. Climate change's primacy in this race is defended by the argument that it has far more potential to harm the human species than any other single issue. Obviously, there are many individuals/groups engaged in activities that demand attention from a prize such as this (180 nominations from across the globe), yet there can only be one winner. This raises legitimate concerns about the subjectivity involved in selecting the award, but does it discount it? It would be prudent to consider another example.

While acknowledging that the science prizes are certainly important, the prize in literature seems far more appealing for this inquiry. This is because scientists are far more obscure than authors, as well as the fact the literary award is so obviously subjective. Many famous authors of the last century have won the award, but there have been glaring omissions. Most notable among these is Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy was still alive for the first decade of the prize and, as the award in literature is based on one's career rather than most recent work (in apparent contravention of Alfred Nobel's wishes as noted above), he was eligible for all those awards. As the author of arguably the greatest novel of all time, War and Peace, it can be seen as nothing less than a gross oversight that he isn't counted amongst Nobel Laureates--kind of like if you made a list of influential 20th century painters and left out Picasso. Other writers such as Orwell and Kafka come to mind, but there are valid reasons for their absences (Orwell published both of his famous works within five years of his death, and Kafka's work was largely published posthumously). The Tolstoy case, though, seems such a large miscarriage as to potentially discredit the award. Can they be defended?

Yes. The awards, despite being deeply flawed, provide a valuable service in recognizing, and subsequently bringing attention to, valuable enterprises that would not otherwise receive this type of notice. Surely the individuals pursuing projects which could possibly net them a Nobel Prize are not doing so with that in mind, but the endowment of the prize legitimizes their efforts with a much larger audience. This, then, encourages others to engage in tasks, be it writing or scientific exploration, that will potentially produce like benefit for humanity.

The Nobel Prize is a positive force in global society, encouraging and acknowledging brilliance in numerous fields that will in turn engender further advancements in those fields. It should not be discounted due to its subjectivity. After all, if we only paid attention to objectivity, I'd be out of a job.