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How to win a Nobel Prize

Saul Perlmutter's Nobel diplomaThe Nobel Prize is one of the most prestigious awards available to scientists. Find out what it's all about and how the winners are chosen.

What is the Nobel Prize?

Although it's normally referred to as the Nobel Prize, there are actually several different Nobel Prizes awarded in different categories each year. There are three scientific prizes, for physics, chemistry and physiology or medicine, as well as prizes for literature and peace. There is also a separate prize for economics that is associated with the Nobel Prizes.

The prizes were started by Alfred Nobel, a chemist and engineer whose inventions included dynamite. In his will, he left most of his fortune to set up the prizes.

Each winner gets a gold medal and a cash prize. The winners are expected to give a special public lecture about their achievement.

Who decides on the winners?

The Nobel Committee asks for nominations from academics in the area of each prize. For the scientific prizes, the final winners are chosen by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. There can be up to three winners each year in any category - which can cause problems when a prize is given for research done by a team of more than three people.

The nominations process is kept secret, so only the names of the winners are announced. The details of who else has been nominated are kept sealed for 50 years.

What makes a Nobel winner?

According to Nobel's will, the prizes are for the people in each field 'who, during the preceding year, have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind'. Examples include the discoveries of x-rays, nuclear fission and the HIV virus.

However, plenty of hugely important scientists never won a Nobel prize, including Thomas Edison and Nikolai Tesla. Some contributors to prize-winning research have also been overlooked, such as Lise Meitner.

Some people have complained that the Nobel prizes are not awarded fairly. For example, the physics prize is meant to be for 'the most important discovery or invention', but far fewer people win for inventions than for discoveries.

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