109. Nobel Prizes Explained!: History, Context, and Current State of the World’s Most Famous Awards (English Vocabulary Lesson)

Over the last few weeks, the winners of this year’s Nobel Prizes have been announced. The Nobel Prizes are perhaps the most prestigious and well known awards around the world. On this episode of Thinking in English, let’s talk about how you win a Nobel Prize, the origins of the awards, and this year’s winners!


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Vocabulary List

Field (n) – an area of activity or interest

He is well known in the field of medicine 

To confer (v) – to give an honour, official title, or ability to someone

The US constitution confers certain powers on the president

Accolade  (n) – praise and approval 

He has been given the ultimate accolade – his face on the $10 bill

Prestigious  (adj) – very much respected and admired, usually because of being important

She goes to a prestigious university

To nominate (v) – to say officially that a person, film, song, programme, etc, will be included in a competition for a prize

The film was nominated for an Academy Award

Dependable (adj) – if someone or something is dependable, you can have confidence in him, her, or it

My car is not very dependable 

Dynamite  (n) – a type of explosive

The cartoon character used dynamite to blow up a building!

Will (n) – an official statement of what a person has decided should be done with their money and property after their death

She left me some money in her will

Obituary (n) – a report, especially in an newspaper, that gives the news of someone’s death and details about their life

His obituary was reported in every national newspaper


Over the last few weeks, the winners of the 2021 Nobel prizes have been announced. The Nobel prizes are one of the most prestigious and famous awards possible to receive. They are awarded in six different fields “to those who, during the preceding year, have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind.” It is the ambition of many of the greatest scientists, researchers, and writers to receive the highest accolade possible. In this episode of Thinking in English, let’s talk about how you get a Nobel prize, the history of the awards, and I’ll try to introduce briefly (and simply) this year’s winners! 

First, what is a Nobel prize? As I mentioned already, they are one of the most prestigious prizes possible to receive. Originally, the prize was awarded for the exceptional contributions of individuals in the fields of Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature, and Peace. In 1968, another prize, in the field of Economics, was added. However, although the prize is generally considered together with the other prizes, it is not technically a Nobel prize. Instead, as it was established by Sweden’s central bank, it is known as “The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel.” 

Since the first awards in 1901, there have been 947 different Nobel Laureates. A Laureate is the name given to the winner of a Nobel Prize, following a tradition started in ancient Greek competitions. Out of these 947, 920 Laureates were people while 27 were actually organisations. The oldest winner was scientist John B Goodenough, who was 97 when he won, while the youngest was Pakistani education and women’s rights activist Malala Yousafzai, who was just 17 when she became a Laureate. There have been many notable and well known winners in the past. 

In particular, former winners of the peace prize include former US Presidents Barack Obama (2009) and Jimmy Carter (2002), the European Union (2012) and UN (2001), and Saint Teresa of Calcutta (1979). Albert Einstein was awarded the prize for physics in 1921, and the scientist Marie Curie actually won two awards – physics in 1903 and chemistry in 1911. The prizes have been criticized for the lack of female winners – only 53 prizes have been won by women. Moreover, 6 people have actually declined the award. The author and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and Vietnamese politician Le Duc Tho both rejected the prize, while four other nominees were forced to withdraw by their countries. 

How are the prizes awarded? In fact, the six different prizes are not chosen by one committee, but by six different organisations. Apart from the Nobel Peace Prize, which is selected in Norway, all of the other winners are chosen in neighbouring Sweden. Nominations are submitted by a wide range of different people and organisations. For example, academics, researchers, professors, previous winners, and more, are given the opportunity to nominate a potential winner. The organisations then choose a winner from the year’s nominees! You might have noticed that more than one person can win a Nobel prize – however, the maximum number of winners of one prize is three!

What do you get if you win the prize? Well, each laureate receives three different things. First, they receive a Nobel diploma, which is also a unique piece of art. Second, they receive a Nobel medal. Third, there is a cash prize of 10 million Swedish krona (over $1million). The money is split between winners if there is more than one laureate for a prize. One of the conditions for receiving the money is to give a Nobel lecture, which is why some previous winners never received their prize money as they decided to not give the lecture. What would you do with 10 million krona if you were awarded the prize? Previous winners have spent their money in interesting ways. Some, like the scientists Marie and Pierre Curie used the money to fund further scientific research (in fact, the money they won for the physics prize in 1903 helped to fund their research which won the Chemistry prize a few years later)! Although some winners choose to donate their money to charity, others treat themselves to something expensive: for example the 2001 medicine prize winner, Sir Paul Nurse, purchased a very expensive motorbike. 

I’ve introduced what the Nobel prizes are and how they are awarded, but I’ve not really mentioned why they exist. Why was the prize founded and where does the money come from? To answer these questions, we need to talk a little about the life of Alfred Nobel. Alfred Nobel was a Swedish chemist, engineer, and industrialist who invented a number of powerful explosives including dynamite who was born in 1833. During the 19th century, there was only one dependable type of explosive. Black powder (a type of gun powder) could be handled safely and without fear of it exploding randomly or unexpectedly. Other than this, all other explosive chemicals were unstable and incredibly dangerous. A liquid called nitro-glycerine had been invented which was significantly more powerful than black powder. However, it could not be used safely or conveniently. The chemical was so dangerous that one of Alfred Nobel’s factories producing it blew up and killed his brother. However, after inventing a few different ways to use nitro-glycerine when mining, Nobel invented dynamite in 1867! You might have heard of dynamite before – it made Nobel famous as his product was used blasting tunnels through mountains, to dig canals, and to help build roads and railways. 

Alongside his dynamite and explosive businesses, Alfred also invested in a business started by two of his surviving brothers. They had discovered oil near the city of Baku in modern day Azerbaijan. He also invented many other products including artificial silk and leather: in total he owned over 350 patents across the globe! All of these different businesses made him an incredibly wealthy man. However, his personality was a mystery during his lifetime. He never married or had children, led a very simple life, and spent his free time writing plays, novels, and poems. When he died in 1896, his business empire included more than 90 factories across the planet manufacturing different kinds of explosives. And when his will was read, there was a great surprise – he had left his fortune to establish what became known as the Nobel Prizes!

Why did he do this? Well, we don’t really know – he never told anyone why he wanted to use his money for these reasons. The awards reflect his lifelong interest in science and literature. He also had a long friendship with Austrian pacifist Bertha von Suttner, who could have inspired the establishment of the Peace prize. However, there was an incident in 1888 which likely caused Nobel to establish the prizes. In 1888, Alfred’s brother Ludvig died in France. French newspapers confused Ludwig with Alfred, and mistakenly reported that he had died. One newspaper used the headline “the merchant of death is dead” for Alfred’s early obituary. It is likely that hearing himself described as the merchant of death made Nobel think about how he would be remembered. His inventions made incredibly powerful weapons and explosives possible. Perhaps the reason Nobel used his money to establish the prizes was to change his reputation after he died. 

So now I’ve explained what a Nobel prize is and why they exist, let’s see who this year’s winners are! I’m not an expert, but I’ll try to simply explain the winners and what they did to deserve it! Let’s start with medicine, which was awarded to David Juilus and Ardem Patapoutian from the USA. These two scientists discovered how our bodies feel warmth, touch, and temperature. David Julius researched how our bodies feel heat from hot chilli peppers, while Ardem Patapotian discovered how our cells ‘feel’ the sensation of touch! Their findings are now being used to find new ways to treat pain!

The 2021 prize for Physics was shared between three different Laureates! They each contributed to the study of complex systems, including the Earth’s climate. Research by Syukuro Manabe and Klaus Hasselmann was used to create computer predictions of global warming and climate change. The third winner is Italian Professor Parisi whose research is not directly linked to the climate, but has been influential in the field of predicting complex systems! The Chemistry prize was won by two scientists, for their work on creating mirror-image molecules. German-born Benjamin List, and Scotland-born David Macmillan developed a chemical toolkit which has been used to invent medications and cutting edge technology.

Tanzanian Novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah was awarded the Nobel Literature Prize. Although I’ve never read any of his work, I’m definitely going to put him on my reading list. He has written 10 novels, including Paradise and Desertion, which often discuss the effects of colonialism! The Peace Prize was shared by two journalists; Maria Ressa from the Philippines and Dmitry Muratov from Russia for their attempts to defend the freedom of expression. They are known for their investigative articles which often anger their countries leaders. And finally, the Economics prize was given to David Card, Joshua Angrist and Guido Imbens for their work on the minimum wage and natural experiments!

Final Thoughts

In this Episode of Thinking in English, I have looked at the Nobel Prize. Hopefully you all have a better understanding of what the Nobel Prizes are, how the winners are selected and why they exist. And although I’m definitely not an expert, I tried to introduce the winners of this year’s prizes! What do you think of the Nobel Prizes? Have you learned anything new in today’s episode? Do you think there should be any new categories of prizes?


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