Difficulties associated with the Nobel Prize started even before the world’s most prestigious award was first given out in 1901. See our list below of favorite tales and factoids, some offered up by the laureates themselves
1. Mincing words. Laureates can’t speak off the cuff during the awards ceremony banquet, according to 2013 Nobelist Randy Schekman who won for his research into cellular transport. He says the text for that speech must be turned in to the Nobel Foundation more than 24 hours in advance to allow for translation into Swedish.
2. Doing time. Three laureates were in prison when they received the award, all of them winners of the Nobel Peace Prize. German pacifist and journalist Carl von Ossietzky in 1935, Burmese politician Aung San Suu Kyi in 1991 and Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo in 2010.
3. How much is it worth? Physics winner Leon Lederman, who won in 1988 for his co-discovery of the muon neutrino, sold his Nobel earlier this year to cover medical care expenses. The buyer, whose identity was not released by the auction house, paid $765,000 for it. Only two Nobels have ever been sold during a winner’s life. Both such sales occurred in the past year.
4. Return policy. Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov paid $4.7 million to buy the gold Nobel medal awarded to biologist James Watson for his work deciphering DNA’s double helix, but he then gave the medal back to the laureate. Usmanov said the medal should remain with the winner and that the monies he paid for it should go toward research.
5. Pesky security. Nobelist Brian Schmidt, who won the 2011 Nobel Physics Prize for co-discovering dark energy, had trouble bringing his gold medal through airport security. “You would think that carrying around a Nobel Prize would be uneventful, and it was uneventful, until I tried to leave Fargo, [North Dakota,] with it and went through the x-ray machine,” he says. (Read more about it at Scientific American)
6. Over the hill? The average age of Nobel laureates, across all prize categories, is 59. But the oldest prizewinner was 90-year-old Leonid Hurwicz, who won the Economics Nobel (technically called the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economics Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel) in 2007. The youngest winner is Malala Yousafzai. She won the Peace Prize in 2014 when she was 17 years old.
7. Where’s my cash? Adolf Hitler forbade three German Nobel laureates from accepting the Nobel Prize—Richard Kuhn (Chemistry, 1938), Adolf Butenandt (Chemistry, 1939) and Gerhard Domagk (Physiology or Medicine, 1939). Later, all of them eventually went on to receive their diploma and medal but not the prize cash.
8. Rocky start. In November 1895 Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel signed his last will and testament, setting aside most of his wealth for the establishment of the Nobel Prize after his death. At the time his move caused controversy. His family contested the will and his selected award committee also refused to carry out his wishes. It was five years before the first Nobel was awarded.
9. Do-over. When John Bardeen co-won the Physics Nobel in 1956 for helping develop a theory of superconductivity commonly known as the BCS theory (after its inventors’ initials), he left most of his family at home rather than bringing them along for the awards ceremony. “His son told me that his father wanted them all to stay in school and study for whatever tests they had,” explains Scientific American video editor, Eliene Augenbraun. “He was loath to take time off work himself.” The king of Sweden noted the absence at the ceremony and scolded Bardeen. The laureate promised he'd bring them "the next time." Then, in 1972 Bardeen indeed won a second Nobel (making him the third person in the history of the prize to win twice). That time, he made sure to bring his entire family.
10. Time of death. In the 1970s the Nobel Foundation decided a prize could not be awarded posthumously (previously, it had been given out twice to dead people). Yet in 2011 one winner in Physiology or Medicine, Ralph Steinman, actually passed away three days earlier without the awarders’ knowledge. The Foundation decided not to rescind his Nobel.
11. Turnaround time: There is often a substantial delay between when a scientist makes a Nobel-worthy discovery and receiving the award—the average time varies from 20 to 30 years, depending on the award category. Sometimes the wait is even longer: In 1966 Peyton Rous was awarded the Physiology or Medicine prize for his work on viruses that can cause tumors, a discovery that was based on research done in the early 1910s, a difference of roughly 50 years. On the other end of the spectrum, in 1957 Chen Ning Yang and Tsung-Dao Lee received the Physics prize for work on the parity laws in particle physics—work that had been done in 1956.
12. Shameless self-promotion. 152 Nobel laureates have written for Scientific American. They have collectively penned 246 articles.