No Physics Nobel for Relativity?

When Einstein received the Nobel Prize, it was primarily for his work on the photoelectric effect. That was certainly Nobel-worthy work, but as the far-reaching value of Relativity became apparent, I’m puzzled why he wasn’t also awarded a Nobel for that.

Other people have won two Nobels (Linus Pauling and Marie Curie come to mind), but those were in two diferent areas (Chemistry and Peace for Pauling, Chemistry and Physics for Curie). Is it simply the policy of the awards committee never to give the award twice to the same person, so Einstein was ineligible for a two-fer?

Or perhaps there was some reason the committee felt that Relativity theory was still insufficiently supported by data while he was still alive?

According to the Norwegian Wikipedia it was too controversial for the award committee and another Norwegian text I found claims it was too speculative.

I can’t speak to the other questions you ask, beyond that I’ve heard the “too speculative/outlandish” explanation mentioned by Floater. However, it’s not the case that the Nobel committees never award the same prize to the same person more than once. John Bardeen won the Physics Nobel in 1956 and in 1972, and Frederick Sanger won the Chemistry prize in 1958 and 1980.

I’m just guessing here, but another factor might be that the Nobel favors experimentalists over theoreticians. You have to actually prove something, not just make good conjecture. In the case of the photoelectric effect, Einstein didn’t have to do the experiment because someone already had; he just made sense of it. Before that it was a conundrum. Furthermore, it was the lynchpin hard fact that helped to really launch quantum mechanics.

One might say that Einstein did the same thing for the Michaelson Morely experiments, with relativity. But perhaps, as Floater says, at the time it was too speculative.

A great example of how Nobels favor experimentalists over theorists is the award for the cosmic background radiation. It went to the guy who found it, by accident, having made a real sensitive receiver getting noise he couldn’t account for. No award for the guy who predicted it. The guy who got it (don’t remeber his name offhand) was a bit nonplussed at first, thinking he didn’t really deserve a Nobel. But then he realized that the award goes to people who make significant discoveries, not people who are smarter than others.

In any case, I think that Einstein definitely deserved a Nobel (or perhaps two) for relativity. He made three different landmark contributions, but was awarded for only one.

My opinion of the Nobel prize is strongly colored by the fact that Mark Twain never received a Nobel for literature, while Yasser Arafat received the peace prize.

It seems to me that enough time has passed that Einstein’s Relativity is no longer speculative nor outlandish. Why not nominate him now?

However, just before I hit the “submit” button, I reread the last line of that snippet. On my first reading, I had thought that it said that some scientists don’t reap the rewards of the prize because they’ve already died. But actually, it said that they aren’t even considered. This made me ask, “Are there no posthumous Nobel prizes?”

And so I discovered, from later in that same article:

So I’m satisfied with this answer. While nowadays, relativity is pretty much old hat, when Einstein died in 1955, it was still so revolutionary that the Nobel committee kept their hands off.

Two guys:Penzias and Wilson.

The rules now may be that the achievement needs to be tested by time, but that was not Alfred Nobel’s original intent. His will actually says, “prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.”

And Einstein’s work on relativity is only one example where a Nobel Prize wasn’t awarded but should have been. The Nobel Committee itself admits, for example, that Gandhi should have received the Peace Prize. (They considered giving a posthumous award to him in 1948, but decided not to award the Peace Prize at all that year.)

Eh. Proust, Joyce. Gore, Obama, “European Union.” Different deal with those.

Antisemitism was a factor. Also, Einstein’s work was unproven until 1919, when it was shown conclusively that gravity bends light.

The prize for the photoelectric effect was, in part, a way to give him the prize without giving it for the still-controversial Theory of Relativity. Those who hadn’t accepted Relativity were willing to go along with this and it was understood at the time that the prize was for Relativity, too.

Both categories are filled with questionable choices, and many of the literature recipients are completely forgotten.

While we’re at it, Michelson didn’t get his Nobel for the Michelson-Morley experiment, either (the most relevant experiment for the theory of special relativity), but for his quite extensive (and more immediately practical) work in metrology.

Thanks for the responses, everyone! And shame on me for forgetting that John Bardeen won two Physics Nobels.

That hadn’t even occurred to me, but is sadly plausible.

This enters into it, too. Relativity was unproven, controversial, and not even all that well known for the year after Einstein formulated it. (That’s often true of new theories; one reason that theorists are often at a Nobel disadvantage compared to experimentalists.) By the time that relativity was proven enough to be accepted by most physicists, it was well after “the preceding year”.

From the Nobel webpage for Michelson:
The Nobel Prize in Physics 1907 was awarded to Albert A. Michelson “for his optical precision instruments and the spectroscopic and metrological investigations carried out with their aid”.

That is describing the Michelson-Morley experiment.

No, it’s describing interferometry in general, not the Michelson-Morley experiment in particular. Here are some quotes from the presentation speech:

The speech goes on to talk about the applications of interferometry to spectroscopy, metrology, and astronomy. The applications of interferometry to the question of the “ether wind” are not mentioned.

For the record, the Norwegians only award the Peace Prize; all the rest are awarded by Swedes.

The Norwegians sometimes award the Peace Prize to those who do something which counters their previous history in negotiations, as part of a joint prize to all negotiators. Thus the prize jointly awarded to Arafat, Peres, and Rabin. Similarly, Mandela and de Klerk in '93, Sadat and Begin in '78, Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho in '73.

That one cost the satire community dearly. Tom Lehrer retired as a satirist in protest that he could never come satirically close to such an achievement as the Nobel committee’s.

Sadly, he is now remember as the inventor of the Jello shot, the Electric Company song “Silent E” and for a boring career as a professor of mathematics. He was the American Victor Borge.

Tom Lehrer invented the jello shot? Hell, I still remember “Who’s next?” and “Vatican Rag.” And I think even Tom would have said teaching math was a noble endeavor.

A recently published book:, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize. I’ve read excerpts. It seems good.