Tech UPTechnologyThe Nobel Committee against Einstein

The Nobel Committee against Einstein

In 1974 the Nobel Foundation opened the archives of the Committee’s deliberations (they do so when 50 years have passed since the award of the prize). Thus we found out that Albert Einstein was nominated 62 times in 12 years . And it has not been the one that has received the most nominations. Arnold Sommerfeld, another of the fathers of quantum theory, was nominated 81 times and never got the coveted medal.

In 1920 Einstein was an old acquaintance of the Nobel committee. A decade earlier he had been nominated for special relativity. Contrary to what happens now, then the Nobel Committee was not very inclined to accept nominations that came from the field of theoretical physics. So during those years all of Einstein’s nominations were dismissed and shelved.

And we come to 1920. Einstein had formulated his general theory of relativity and the astrophysicist Arthur Eddington had verified one of his predictions (that gravity bends the path of light rays) the year before. All bets gave Einstein a winner . In fact, it was the one that accumulated the most nominations. The (negative) report on general relativity was written by the physicist-chemist Svante Arrhenius , and the Committee again rejected his candidacy. What is certain is that the Committee also had a different agenda for that year’s prize: they wanted it to go to Charles Édouard Guillaume , director of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in Switzerland.

At that time, one of the members of the Swedish Academy of Sciences, the astronomer Bernard Hasselberg, had been ill for several years and was thinking of retiring. In those cases there was an unwritten custom that when this happened, his colleagues would honor him by allowing him to be the deciding voice in choosing the nominee. Hasselberg was in love with precise measurements and had repeatedly tried – unsuccessfully – to win the Nobel Prize for his friend Guillaume.

Bedridden, he wrote to the Nobel Committee saying that he would be happy if his friend was awarded the Nobel Prize. Fearing that he might not make it to the voting alive, he sent his in early. As expected, the Committee granted his wish. When it was made public, even Guillaume himself was surprised. The Swedish press, so fond of promoting the prizes, was seen and wanted to explain why a totally unknown metallurgist won the Nobel Prize in Physics.

That year the international support for Einstein was overwhelming: 14 of the 32 nominators proposed Einstein. When the Committee met to assess the candidates, the Swedish anti-Einstein tide was in full swing. Philosophers and political commentators feared that relativity would bring about a relativism in traditional values. In addition, the elite members of the Nobel Committee did not like Einstein’s personality at all, and just thinking about the possibility that he could stand before their king gave them hives.

The report on the two relativities was written by Allvar Gullstrand, a professor of optics and ophthalmology at Uppsala University. He did not understand either of them, but he was forced to deny the award to the German. He had no trouble convincing the Committee: none of them liked the theory of relativity. In addition, no one was going to snub him as one of its most respected members, especially when he had privately confessed: “Einstein should never receive the Nobel Prize, even if the whole world claims it.” So around midnight on November 12, 1921, the Academy voted to vacate that year’s Nobel Prize in Physics.

In 1922 the Swedish Academy was faced with the task of awarding two Nobel Prizes in Physics. Obviously, the name of Einstein and relativity were back on the table. Now, there was someone who had nominated Einstein for another of his papers, the explanation of the photoelectric effect . The person who did it was Carl Wilhelm Oseen, who knew firsthand the Committee’s animosity towards anything that smacked of relativity. Unfortunately that year there was an added problem: German scientists had proposed Niels Bohr .

When the Committee met to assess the nominations, Oseen acted with great insight. He knew that Einstein’s theory of the photoelectric effect – that light was made up of photons – was still hotly debated and accepted by very few, but he told the Committee members that he was referring to the law, not the theory. , which was accepted without the slightest doubt by all physicists. In addition, his nomination was in line with the prejudices of Swedish academics: Einstein’s work gave reason for an experimental fact.

In this way, the great strategist that Oseen was left the door open for the 1922 Nobel Prize to go to Niels Bohr, a good friend of his. And as a coup de grace, he explained to the members of the Committee that Bohr’s atomic theory strongly depended on the law enunciated by Einstein , so if one was rewarded, the other would have to be rewarded. At the final meeting on September 6, it was decided to bring Einstein’s proposal for the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics and Bohr’s proposal for the 1922 Nobel Prize to the assembly. 


Brian, D. (1996) Einstein, a life, John Wiley & Sons

Clark, R.W. (1984) Einstein. The Life and Times, HarperCollins

Hoffmann, B. (1984) Einstein, Salvat

Kuznetsov, B. (1990) Einstein. Life, Death, Immortality, Progress

Pais, A. (1984) ‘The Lord is subtle…’: The science and life of Albert Einstein, Ariel

Turrion, J. (2022), Einstein. II Proper Time, A Moon

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