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Five facts about Sweden’s Nobel prizes

Since 1901, Nobel prizes have been awarded for work that has led to great advances for mankind, in line with the wishes of inventor Alfred Nobel. The winners of this year's prizes will be announced daily from October 3rd-10th. Here are five facts about the prizes and their creator.

Five facts about Sweden's Nobel prizes
Alfred Nobel's profile on a lectern at the 2020 Nobel Prize ceremony. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

Posthumous awards

Since 1974, the statutes of the Nobel Foundation stipulate that the prize may not be given posthumously. But a person may be awarded if she or he dies between the time of the announcement in October and the formal prize ceremony in December.

Before the change, only two people had won a Nobel posthumously. One was Dag Hammarskjöld, the Swedish secretary general of the United Nations who died in a plane crash in 1961 but was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize later the same year.

And in 1931, the Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded posthumously to another Swede, Erik Axel Karlfeldt.

In 2011, the medicine prize committee selected Ralph Steinman of Canada, unaware that he had passed away just three days before the prize announcement.

Nevertheless, the foundation decided to give him the award.

A fortune for a Nobel

The Nobel Prizes come with a tidy prize sum, currently set at 10 million kronor ($895,000) per discipline, along with an 18-carat gold medal.

The 2021 Peace Prize laureate, Dmitry Muratov, turned his gold disc into a fortune to benefit Ukrainian children displaced by the war.

In June, his 196-gram medal — including 150 grams of gold — sold at auction for a whopping $103.5 million to an anonymous philanthropist. That smashed the previous record for a Nobel medal 21-fold.

A misunderstanding?

On April 12, 1888, Alfred Nobel’s elder brother Ludvig died in Cannes, France.

But newspaper Le Figaro mixed up the brothers and announced Alfred’s death on its front page under a rather inflammatory headline: “A man who can hardly be called a benefactor of humanity died yesterday in Cannes. He is Nobel, inventor of dynamite”.

Many credit this slight as the inspiration for Nobel’s creation of the prizes, pointing to the wording in his will that the awards should go to those who “have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind”.

“But we can only imagine” that this is what happened because the incident is not mentioned in his correspondence, his biographer Ingrid Carlberg told AFP.

As for the visitors who came to offer their condolences at the inventor’s Parisian mansion, they were surprised to be greeted by a very much alive Alfred, as reported by Le Figaro the following day.

1903 Nobel to pioneering climate researcher

A man of many talents, Swedish physicist and chemist Svante Arrhenius won the 1903 Chemistry Prize for his “electrolytic theory of dissociation”.

But he is now more widely recognised for his other pioneering work: at the end of the 19th century, he was the first to theorise that the combustion of fossil energy  – which at the time was primarily coal — emits carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and leads to global warming.

According to his calculations, a doubling of CO2 emissions would heat the planet by five degrees Celsius; current models suggest a range between 2.6 and 3.9 degrees Celsius.

However, completely unaware of just how much fossil fuel the world would go on to consume, Arrhenius underestimated the speed at which this level would be reached, predicting it would take 3,000 years.

New prizes, even richer

With 120 years under their belt and a name associated throughout the world with excellence, the Nobel prizes are considered the creme de la creme of awards.

But some critics consider them to be archaic, often honouring discoveries made decades ago and not taking into account newer scientific fields.

The Right Livelihood Award was therefore created in 1980 by a German-Swedish philanthropist after the Nobel Foundation refused to create two new prizes for the environment and international development.

Finland created the one-million-euro Millennium Technology Prize in 2002 to recognise the role technology plays in solving global challenges, while the $1 million Kavli Prizes in Norway have since 2008 honoured discoveries in the fields of astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience.

But the richest prize of them all is the most recent one, the Breakthrough Prize created in 2010 by a group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. Dubbed the “Oscars for Science”, they come with a cheque for $3 million, more than three times the winnings of a Nobel Prize.

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KEY POINTS: What do we know about the plans for a future Swedish cultural canon?

The government has promised to set up a committee to develop a proposal for a Swedish "cultural canon". Foreigners may end up having to know about the works included for a future citizenship test. Here's what we know so far.

KEY POINTS: What do we know about the plans for a future Swedish cultural canon?

What do we know about the government’s plans? 

For the government, this is a political project. 

“Culture and our common history are the ground of our collective identity,” prime minister Ulf Kristersson said in his speech outlining the government’s plans. “It creates a sense of community and increases our understanding of one another.” 

He said that “a committee of independent experts” would be appointed to develop a proposal. 

In the Tidö agreement between the three governing parties and the far-right Sweden Democrats, it adds that the experts would have “artistic competence in their respective fields”, and would develop a canon that included “different cultural forms”.

The agreement also calls for experts with “literary as a well as pedagogical competence” to develop reading lists with Swedish and international literary works”. 

Denmark’s cultural canon, which was presented in 2006, includes 108 works. divided into eight categories: architecture, visual arts, design and crafts, film, literature, and music. 

Culture Minister Parisa Liljestrand told SVT in an interview last month that she hoped that exposing everyone to a common cultural canon could “bring together a divided country” and would also help teachers know what works to expose their students to.

Will it be part of a future citizenship test? 

Culture Minister Parisa Liljestrand told SVT in an interview last month that this was not something she was ruling out.  “That’s something I think a government inquiry should look at and experts should think about,” she said. 

But in the run-up to the 2018 election, the Sweden Democrats then culture spokesperson Aron Emilsson told SVT that he felt there could be a test on the cultural canon, or that it could feed into the citizenship test. 

In Denmark, the cultural canon feeds into the (badly out of date) learning material given out in advance for those taking the Danish citizenship test. 

This means that the cultural canon is part of the citizenship test, but those taking the test can concentrate on learning facts about the 108 works which form part of the official citizenship-test learning material.

The Danish citizenship test does, however, include questions on current affairs and other issues which are not part of the official learning material. 

What does Sweden’s artistic world say about the plans? 

Almost everyone hates them.

A group of 35 leading Swedish authors, including leading literary and bestselling authors such as Viveka Sten and Camilla Läckberg, wrote an article in the Expressen newspaper condemning the plans. 

“To control literature is to control people’s thoughts and lives, and that does not belong in a democratic society,” they wrote. 

A cultural canon, they continued, would mean “excising the unwanted”, and would be a “repressive instrument”. 

Anna Troberg, head of DIK, the union for creative people and authors, wrote this week in Svenska Dagbladet that the proposal “ignored the expert competence of the entire cultural sector” and was “fundamentally a nationalist education project”.