Nobel prize (not for science)

By Daniel Holz | October 9, 2009 11:03 am

Nobel medalMost of the world is stunned to hear that Obama is the recipient of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. It is likely that Obama is the most surprised of all. I’m sure the uniform reaction is: “But what has he actually done?” He’s been President less than nine months. And it’s not like he had major “peace” accomplishments in his short tenure as a Senator. So has the Swedish Academy (or, actually, the Norwegian Parliament, which is an interesting story in its own right) gone insane? No. It’s fairly apparent that Obama is receiving the Nobel because he has been forcefully articulating a compelling future. In his speeches and actions, he is attempting to bring together Israelis and Palestinians, Christians and Muslims, Blacks and Whites, Rich and Poor. He has a clear vision of a world at peace, in a broad sense of the term. Although this may be unattainable, we can certainly get a lot closer than we are now. The Prize is “to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations,” and indeed, over the past year Obama stands apart.

From the scientific perspective, Obama has had tremendous impact (the Peace Prize singles out his “constructive role in meeting the great climatic challenges the world is confronting”). His appointees are first-rate, and there is a feeling that we are finally starting to move in the right direction. It is hard, of course, to point to tangible scientific results that have arisen because of Obama. There simply hasn’t been time enough. But this does not negate his impact; the momentum is apparent and encouraging. It is a similar story in international diplomacy. Obama also benefits from eight preceding years of Bush. Within the scientific community, the Bush administration represented a dark age. Any subsequent reasonable policy would seem to be enlightened. Thus to have a truly exceptional policy, informed by actual science and scientists (instead of cynical political aims), has a profound effect on the state of affairs. It is a similar story in international diplomacy.

My guess is that the Nobel committee wants to be relevant. A major criticism of the Physics Prize is that it has a relatively minor impact on the field of physics. It’s almost always given decades after the fact, to researchers that are already well known and well established. For the vast majority of recipients, their work is not suddenly transformed by the Prize. If anything, they become significantly less productive, as they’re now busy traveling the world and giving talks and (justifiably) enjoying the prominence only a Nobel can confer. Do not misunderstand: I am certainly not criticizing the Nobel Prize. It brings much positive attention to the field, and for the most part singles out very deserving recipients. It is the ultimate advertising campaign for physics, and we all benefit from it. (It would nonetheless be interesting to compare it to the Fields Medal [effectively the Nobel for mathematics], which is only given to mathematicians under the age of 40.) In this context, giving the Peace Prize to Obama is an inspired choice. They are hoping to give him more stature and leverage to help him achieve his goals; they want to help make the world a better place. It affirms the importance of American leadership on the world stage, and endorses our President’s vision of a world at peace. All Americans, regardless of political affiliation, should celebrate this.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Politics, Science and Politics
  • Yvette

    So if I start giving speeches on how I really, really want to prove string theory is right can I win the Nobel Prize in Physics next year?

    I like the man, but I really don’t see why they couldn’t wait a few years to see what Obama would end up actually DOING frankly. Just because you’re not the previous administration doesn’t seem like a good enough reason IMO- plus we’re still in Iraq, escalating in Afghanistan, and I just heard on NPR they’re not sure whether they’ll be able to close Gitmo…

  • Anonymous Snowboarder

    Sadly the Eurocrats aren’t over the cult of personality that is Obama worship. Talk about cheapening the prize.

  • cyberthrush

    Yes, this is a huge surprise… though not nearly as inexplicable and illogical as G.W. Bush getting elected to a 2nd term!

  • Sean

    Yeah, I’m a huge Obama fan, but I think this Prize was a mistake. The Peace Prize committee has historically had some questionable choices, and this one doesn’t increase one’s confidence in the process. I’m happy to argue that Obama has already achieved quite a bit, if only in changing the way America is viewed in the world. But a prize like this should be awarded primarily for what you’ve done, not what you might someday do.

  • Giotis

    I wonder what is so special about the Norwegian Parliament and why should the world pay any attention to their awards.

  • Serge

    I feel like transported to parallel bran where The Onion is the only news source. Next big news will be George W. Bush winning Nobel Prize in physics for bringing Newton Law of Gravity to public awareness by falling from Segway.

  • Metre

    I concur with Yvette (#1). Announcing my intention to find the Higgs’ boson is not the same as actually finding it. Nobel prizes should be awarded for accomplishments, not good intentions. While I prefer Obama’s approach to foreign policy over that of GWB, to date it has not achieved tangible results.

  • Pieter Kok

    The Nobel committee is trying to make up for giving the peace prize to Arafat and Kissinger.

    Seriously, this must totally infuriate the right, which is a worthy end in itself. 😉

  • tacitus

    It is a bit ridiculous to be awarding President Obama the Nobel Peace Prize at this stage — even if his intentions are worthy, the accomplishments aren’t there yet, not even close.

    However, it is rather entertaining to see all the right-wingers choking on their morning coffee upon hearing the news.

    I would say that this premature award could damage Obama further in the eyes of the right-wing, but when you’re already seen as an illegitimate communist fascist dictatorial narcissistic Antichrist, I can’t see there’s much of a downside. :-)

  • Gavin Polhemus

    This year they decided to give the prize to the person representing our best hope for peace. Using the prize to further peace in the world is not a mistake or a cheapening of the prize. It is practical. Good for them, and for all of us.

  • Neal J. King

    The Nobel Peace Prize often seems to be awarded to bring attention to “works in progress”. It’s not like the science prizes, that are supposed to honor actual accomplishments. So from that perspective, this one may not be so far out of line. After all, what has Aung San Suu Kyi ACCOMPLISHED? She’s still a prisoner in her own land. Yet I, for one, do not think her unworthy of the NPP.

    Yvette: In fact, I believe Witten was awarded the Fields Medal for his “speculations” in the mathematics of string theory, not for actual proofs of these speculations. Maybe there’s a better cause for complaint there!

  • A M

    This is the best-stated argument in favor of the Nobel committee’s choice. Well reasoned and much appreciated.

  • Peter Woit

    Neal J. King,

    Witten was awarded the Fields Medal for work which had nothing to do with string theory. See the description of this work by Atiyah:

    At the time, the award was somewhat controversial among mathematicians, because Witten did not provide the kind of rigorous proofs that mathematicians expect. However, the few prominent mathematicians I know who grumbled about this shut up a few years later after Witten revolutionized topology with the Seiberg-Witten equations, agreeing that his Fields Medal was well-deserved.

  • Davo

    It’s pretty absurd awarding Obama the peace prize right now. The man is exceptional and has tremendous potential, but as the saying goes there’s “many a slip between the cup and the lip”. You cannot give Michael Phelps the gold before he has actually won that last race, no matter how much promise he has shown before. It’s really weird.

  • Art

    ehem… It’s Higgs not Higg’s. He doesn’t own it, it’s just named after him.

  • John

    Anyone who can bring real hope to not just hundreds of millions of people in the US, but to billions of people in the whole world, hope that we might move past violence as a means to an end, hope that we can improve the lives of all of us on this planet, deserves this prize. I was surprised, even shocked, when I heard the news, I questioned the reasoning behind it when I heard it, but I think it is wonderful.

  • cvj

    It seems fitting for what the Nobel Prize is that the peace prize be awarded to Mr. Obama. It’s nothing to get excited about, after all, it is just a prize some folks awarded to another person, not an accomplishment. It’s nothing more than that: like an Emmy or an Oscar, or that sticker I got once in school. Often times the award is more about the awarder than the recipient, although in this case who cares.

  • metre

    @ Art #15:

    I actually wrote Higgs’ vice Higg’s. And, in fact, he me told that he does own three of them. He keeps them in his car, which does reduce its gas mileage considerably.

  • Michael T.

    Inspiring hope is a huge accomplishment and reigniting the fire in the belief that all things are possible is truly wonderful. Who in our generation has inspired such feelings the world over?

    If Obama fails it is because we have failed. And that is why this is such an important symbol of a shared responsibility in shaping humanity’s collective future.

    Si se puede!

  • Brian137

    Here is a link to the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize citation, which outlines the committee’s rationale in awarding the prize to Barack Obama:

  • Gary

    “From the scientific perspective, Obama has had tremendous impact …”
    Only if your version of science’s wave function isn’t anywhere near collapse.

  • Brian137

    Anyone who helps improve the human condition merits some commendation. Barack Obama has made a good-faith effort to ratchet down international tensions that in their most extreme manifestations encourage war, terrorism, and indifference to human suffering. He seems to respect people merely for being human, not apparently requiring additional justifications to treat them with dignity. I have no doubt that there were a number of excellent candidates for this award, but I am delighted by the selection of Barack Obama.

  • http://none satish gulani

    the award is well deserved.people will live to see and enjoy the fruits on the tree for which he has
    sown the is somebody who has the right thought and can deliver but not alone.for a better
    world tomorrow join him and support him.just dont be a REPUBLICAN idiot.

  • John Phillips, FCD

    To repeat what I said on another page. Intentions alone has often been considered a valid criteria by the Peace Prize Committee, simply look at some of the previous winners. Many who had never actually achieved their stated goals at the time of the award itself and only some of whom later achieved the intentions they were awarded for.

    However, the Peace Prize, unlike the other Nobel prizes, is not just about achievements but about how stated intentions by the right people can change perception and thus, sometimes, make the goals even possible or easier to achieve. In Obama’s case, as I understand it, it is, among other reasons, about his often repeated declared intent, even before his presidency, to use diplomacy in areas the US has, over the last eight years or so at least, openly renounced as an useful tool.

    Whether anyone agrees with the criteria that the committee uses is of course a matter of individual opinion. However, when one looks at Obama’s award in the context of some previous awards, while it may be a surprise, the committee hasn’t done anything particularly outrageous according to their selection criteria.

  • ID

    In my opinion, it is wrong to give the Nobel Peace Prize to politicians at all. After all, resolving conflicts is their job. Many Nobel Prize recipients, including the one from last year, have done nothing exceptional which was not required by their job. The Peace Nobel should be given to people who performed outstanding deeds in order to help other people. It should be given to people like Albert Schweizer and Mother Teresa. And I’m sure there are more people like that nowadays, too, only nobody pays attention to the real heroes. All this Nobel mess is just politics.

    As for Obama, this is completely absurd. Explaining the prize by the (questionable) assumption that he has given hope to many people is basically commending him for his skills as an orator. Ok, so the man knows how to give a good speech. How is this connected to the World Peace?

    By the way, the deadline for submission of candidates for the prize was somewhere in February, few weeks after Obama actually became president.

  • Joey

    Frankly, world peace has a better chance than string theory.

  • Rules For

    In your opinion, is it wrong to give physicists the Nobel Prize in Physics? After all, doing physics is their job???

  • ID

    Rules For,

    In my opinion (really, this is nothing more than that) a Peace Nobel is not quite the same as a Physics Nobel. It should be given to outstanding individuals who serve as role models to all humanity.

    My problem with politicians is that the Nobel prize is more often than not used as a political tool, as (probably) in the present case, and thus is just a part of a complicated political game, instead of being a way to encourage outstanding individuals.

  • Peter Coles

    It’s like giving a postdoc the Nobel Prize for Physics just for writing a good research proposal.

  • John Nobill

    President Obama has still increased occupations of foreign lands… if only we could imagine the actual daily deaths of our own troops worldwide? Wouldn’t we cry? Wouldn’t we protest at the Mall? We shouldn’t openly acknowledge the lack of progress with a celebratory response. Come on, nobill taxpaying people file for bankruptcy, are denied advanced technology healing, and don’t pursue higher education due to MONEY (i.e. our tax dollars). It’s insane, if you ask me, to recognize war with a peace prize. Good job people… keep the War of Man alive–idiots!

  • Atanu Dey

    In #25 above, ID says, “[The Nobel peace prize] should be given to people like Albert Schweizer and Mother Teresa.”

    Actually, Mother Teresa did more to increase misery and sorrow in India, an extremely poor and overcrowded country, than many others who tried to do so intentionally. Giving her any recognition for doing good work is misguided at best. She cynically manipulated a gullible public to further he own aim — the elevation of her order and (as it turned out later) to somehow get herself to believe in the doctrine that she found incredible.

    Christopher Hitchens, among others, has been exposing the Mother Teresa phenomenon for decades. Quote from one of Hitchens’ debates:

    “What’s motherly about her? Hideous virgin and fraud, and fanatic and fundamentalist, shriveled old bat. [She was] as far from the nature of motherhood as a woman could decently get. . . We have to have the fortitude to say… to those who are afflicted, to those who are poor, to those who really are suffering, we should say honestly that those who offer them false consolation are not there friends. Who doesn’t know by now that the cure for poverty is not charity in Calcutta. Who doesn’t know that? Why did we decide to forget what we learnt over the generations that charity is an insult to the poor and a way of prolonging poverty; that Mother Teresa was not a friend of the poor, she was a friend of poverty. That there is only one cure for poverty, and that is, by the way, the liberation of women. And which works every time and against which all religions have set its face every time. And against which Mother Teresa has spent a lifetime campaigning, to ensure that misery and poverty and dirt and disease and ignorance would be continued so that there would be ever more people to testify to the Catholic faith.”

    Hitchens is accurate in his description of Teresa being a fraud. It has recently been revealed that she did not believe in the tripe she was peddling pretty much all her life. She did not have faith in her god. This did not come as a surprise to me because I had concluded that she was a supremely shrewed, cunning, and intelligent person. The way she manipulated the press, the way she used the high-ranking politicians (and the way she allowed herself to be used by them in turn), the way she rubbed shoulders with convicted frauds as long as they enriched her order, the way she handed out indulgences to mass murderers — it all indicated that she was nobody’s fool and she could not have possibly believed in the simple-minded nonsense that the Catholic church expects its flock to believe.

    But apparently she wanted to believe in that vile nonsense. And being unable to believe, she was a tortured soul. Perhaps there is some justice in the world after all: at least she suffered a bit. Not a whole lot compared to the suffering that she inflicted by her evil machinations but still suffered. There is no hell but perhaps she did inhabit a bit of hell on earth. Unfortunately though, it is possible that if she had not been so tortured by her lack of faith, perhaps she would have been a little less merciless in her actions. A good person does not even unintentionally harm innocent humans. The evil she represents is absolute because she knowingly increased suffering and pain.

    If she had toiled in obscurity whatever her motivation, if she was just another misguided monkey trying to save fish, if she had been just one more missionary hell-bent on converting the heathens — I would not waste my breath on her. But she was celebrated by the powers of the Western world, and celebrated by the morons in the Indian press, awarded all kinds of honors by the stupid Indian government, and finally given a state funeral. The louder these powers speak about her holiness, the more the general population gets brainwashed into believing a falsehood. So I consider it my duty to expose the evil she embodied.

  • incognegro

    Wow, thanks Atanu Dey.

    I didn’t know that about Mother Teresa. I can’t believe she was a fraud!

  • Paul Murray

    The nobel prise for peace, for his work on nuclear anti-proliferation? I can’t think of a peace effort with a simpler metric: how many US nuclear missiles has he decommissioned?

    Feh. These people also gave a prize to the man who authorised the carpet-bombing of Cambodia.

    As for Mother Theresa: There’s a curiously quantitative idea if sin – that a litre of “sin” is cancelled out by a litre of “grace”. Certain things – taking communion, doing penance, etc create grace. As does, of course, bodily suffering – hence the Opus Dei “mortifications” and so on. The sufferings of Christ and the various saints produced a lot of grace. They’ve effectively got access to a vat of it at the Vatican, and that’s how they were able to grant “indulgences” back in the day – siphoning off some of that grace to cancel out your sins. For a fee.

    Mother Theresa, I rather gathered, was basically farming the poor for the “grace” that suffering produces, much like ants farm aphids for sugar. Every indian destitute that dies in filth from lack of medical care generates so many milliliters of grace, and she got a percentage. Hopefully enough to score a nice upgrade to the mansion waiting for her in heaven.

    You got to keep your eye on the big picture, after all.

  • egg

                                      子休(from china)

  • per

    When war becomes peace,

    When concepts and realities are turned upside down,

    When fiction becomes truth and truth becomes fiction.

    When a global military agenda is heralded as a humanitarian endeavor,

    When the killing of civilians is upheld as “collateral damage”,

    When those who resist the US-NATO led invasion of their homeland are categorized as “insurgents” or “terrorists”.

    When preemptive nuclear war is upheld as self defense.

    When advanced torture and “interrogation” techniques are routinely used to “protect peacekeeping operations”,

    When tactical nuclear weapons are heralded by the Pentagon as “harmless to the surrounding civilian population”

    When three quarters of US personal federal income tax revenues are allocated to financing what is euphemistically referred to as “national defense”

    When the Commander in Chief of the largest military force on planet earth is presented as a global peace-maker,

    When the Lie becomes the Truth.

  • Brian137

    Here is an article, dated October 13, titled
    “Nobel jury speaks out in defense of Obama prize”

  • Raymond

    This probably was highlighted in previous post link , but i’ll say it anyway. The rules of Nobel peace prize say that the prize should be given to a person that has had greatest impact for peace in the world during the LAST year. Name one exceeding Obama in that scale.

    “Giving Obama nobel peace prize of course resembles giving GWB a nobel prize of war, but you Yankees can take this as a prize to you all” -Yankee doodles boodle noodle


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Daniel Holz


See More

Collapse bottom bar