Why are Nobel prizes now being awarded in halves

What’s with Nobel prizes now being awarded in halves? How long has this been going on?

From AIDS and cervical cancer discoveries scoop Nobel prize:

Also, from Physics Nobel snubs key researcher:

They aren’t always. Splitting the Prize across multiple advances this way is just a way to compromise when the comittee can’t decide on a single winner. The world’s bigger now than it was in Nobel’s day, so this happens more often nowadays.

What Chronos said.

Another factor is that very little original research is being done by one lone individual nowadays. It’s almost always a joint effort.

Quick, without googling, name five famous scientists, household names like Einstein, born after 1950. I can’t.

It’s been going on since the beginning, whenever the Nobel committee felt that the prize deserved to be shared among several people, or several groups of people.

The 1902 physics prize was split between Hendrik A. Lorentz and Pieter Zeeman.

Edit: Actually, that may not be the best example; Lorentz and Zeeman worked together. A better example might be the 1909 physics prize, split between Guglielmo Marconi and Ferdinand Braun.


You have to distinguish between one prize being shared by multiple people for the same discovery and the prize being split up between two different discoveries. This thread is about the latter, I reckon.

The difference is whether it is awarded to multiple people for the same idea or for different ideas.

The particular type of halving we’re seeing this year (with half going to one person and then the other half being split between two others, rather than splitting into 3 equal thirds) dates back to the physics prize in 1903. Becquerel got half and the Curies shared the other half.

I don’t quite have explicit proof, but that outcome was almost certainly a compromise emerging from especially messy deliberations surrounding the 1903 prizes. There were all sorts of issues that the Swedes had to argue through about the system in the first decade in order to eventually settle on how it was to work. Thus in 1903 we have:

[ul]Arguments about the boundary between physics and chemistry. With one strongly backed proposal being that this should be straddled by simultaneously awarding Arrhenius half a Physics Prize and half a Chemistry one. The 1902 Physics Prize having established (somewhat against the wording of Nobel’s will) that any one of the prizes could be split. Worth bearing in mind that Arrhenius is, by far, the dominant figure in Scandanavian science at the time - he’s the local special case. Becquerel’s name emerges as the other obvious candidate for the Physics Prize, so the idea that he gets the other half of that is on the table from early on. In the event, Arrhenius gets the 1903 Chemistry Prize outright.[/ul]
[ul]The deliberations are clearly biased against Marie Curie as a woman. All the internal reports downplay her role and at one stage it looked likely that the Physics Prize would just be split between Becquerel and her husband. But Mittag-Leffler fights for her inclusion.[/ul]
[ul]Indeed Marie Curie was never nominated at all for any of the prizes in 1903. Nobody had put her name forward in the first place. But she had been nominated the previous year and so the rules were fudged at a late stage to allow her name to be coupled to Pierre’s on that basis.[/ul]

I suspect those are the origins of the final arrangement: Becquerel being a candidate for half the prize from relatively early on and Marie Curie being regarded as a problematic candidate throughout.
This then sets the precident for such splits thereafter, down to the present year.

The irony is that there’s the argument that Marie Curie’s 1903 inclusion was the making of the Nobel Prizes as headline news. A woman winning one was the newsworthy story that fixed their prominance in the public mind thereafter. (Though it should be said that this is not obvious; the scale of Nobel’s endowment meant that the prizes were news long before they were ever actually awarded.)