Arne Tiselius was a Swedish chemist. He received the 1948 Nobel Prize in Chemistry "for his research on electrophoresis and adsorption analysis [...]". Before becoming a Nobel Laureate himself, Tiselius had already been involved in the Nobel Foundation’s committee for the chemistry prize, one of the five committees selecting the Nobel Laureates.
Drawing from his twofold experience, both in the awarding and receiving role, Tiselius uses this lecture to give an insight into the past and present of the Nobel Foundation. In doing so, he takes a surprisingly honest approach, not leaving out some of the down-to-earth difficulties in awarding a Nobel Prize “fair and square”.
Many of these difficulties have to do with Alfred Nobel’s dislike of lawyers. Tiselius cites Nobel with the saying: “Lawyers have to live and they can only do this by attempting to make everyone believe that straight lines are bent.” The practical consequence of this problematic relationship was that Nobel wrote his will without knowledgeable help, thus introducing ambiguities and unrealistic provisions. Many of these provisions had to be bypassed later on. Nobel originally intended, for example that the Prize should only be given for discoveries made during the last year. Also, the Prize should ideally be awarded to young researchers at the beginning of their career, thus enabling them to develop their ideas further. Both of these provisions turned out to be practically impossible to fulfil. Nobel furthermore intended that his money should only be invested using safe financial instruments such as government bonds. When inflation soared, this provision led to significant losses to the Nobel Foundation’s funds. It was thus overturned, allowing the investment of half of the Foundation’s funds in stock.
Lastly, Tiselius gives some insight into the technicalities of selecting the next Laureate. He illustrates for example, that sometimes, there can be candidates of whom most colleagues would say “he should have a Nobel Prize!” but who can still not be selected since they did not make a tangible singular discovery. Discussing numbers, he mentions that around 20 candidates are suggested each year in the discipline of chemistry, of which 10 usually have been suggested previously. To a certain degree, there thus can be a “waiting line” for the Prize.
All in all, Tiselius’ lecture is a highly recommendable concise introduction to the history of Alfred Nobel and the workings of the Nobel Prize. Not least because Tiselius does not forget to remind the audience that the people who are involved in selecting the next Laureate are, despite their great responsibility, still only human.