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Nobel Prize in Physics

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Background Information

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The Nobel Prize in Physics
Awarded for Outstanding contributions in Physics
Location Stockholm, Sweden
Presented by Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
First awarded 1901
Official website
Wilhelm Röntgen (1845–1923), the first recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics.

The Nobel Prize in Physics ( Swedish: Nobelpriset i fysik) is awarded once a year by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. It is one of the five Nobel Prizes established by the will of Alfred Nobel in 1895 and awarded since 1901; the others are the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Nobel Prize in Literature, Nobel Peace Prize, and Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The first Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, a German, "in recognition of the extraordinary services he has rendered by the discovery of the remarkable rays (or x-rays)." This award is administered by the Nobel Foundation and widely regarded as the most prestigious award that a scientist can receive in physics. It is presented in Stockholm at an annual ceremony on December 10, the anniversary of Nobel's death.


Alfred Nobel requested in his last will and testament that his money be used to create a series of prizes for those who confer the "greatest benefit on mankind" in physics, chemistry, peace, physiology or medicine, and literature. Though Nobel wrote several wills during his lifetime, the last was written a little over a year before he died, and signed at the Swedish-Norwegian Club in Paris on 27 November 1895. Nobel bequeathed 94% of his total assets, 31 million Swedish kronor (US$186 million in 2008), to establish and endow the five Nobel Prizes. Due to the level of skepticism surrounding the will it was not until April 26, 1897 that it was approved by the Storting (the Norwegian Parliament). The executors of his will were Ragnar Sohlman and Rudolf Lilljequist, who formed the Nobel Foundation to take care of Nobel's fortune and organise the prizes.

The members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee who were to award the Peace Prize were appointed shortly after the will was approved. The prize-awarding organisations followed: the Karolinska Institutet on June 7, the Swedish Academy on June 9, and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences on June 11. The Nobel Foundation then reached an agreement on guidelines for how the Nobel Prize should be awarded. In 1900, the Nobel Foundation's newly created statutes were promulgated by King Oscar II. According to Nobel's will, The Royal Swedish Academy of sciences were to award the Prize in Physics.

Nomination and selection

Three Nobel Laureates in Physics. Front row from left: Albert A. Michelson (1907), Albert Einstein (1921) and Robert A. Millikan (1923).

A maximum of three Nobel laureates and two different works may be selected for the Nobel Prize in Physics. Compared with some other Nobel Prizes, the nomination and selection process for the prize in Physics is long and rigorous. This is a key reason it has grown in importance over the years to become the most important prize in Physics.

The Nobel laureates are selected by the Nobel Committee for Physics, a Nobel Committee that consists of five members elected by The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. In the first stage, several thousand people are asked to nominate candidates. These names are scrutinized and discussed by experts until the choice is made.

Forms are sent to about three thousand individuals to invite them to submit nominations. The names of the nominees are never publicly announced, and neither are they told that they have been considered for the prize. Nomination records are sealed for fifty years. In practice, some nominees do become known. It is also common for publicists to make such a claim, founded or not.

The nominations are screened by committee, and a list is produced of approximately two hundred preliminary candidates. This list is forwarded to selected experts in the field. They narrow it down to approximately fifteen names. The committee submits a report with recommendations to the appropriate institution.

While posthumous nominations are not permitted, awards can be made if the individual died in the months between the decision of the prize committee (typically in October) and the ceremony in December. Prior to 1974, posthumous awards were permitted if the recipient had died after being nominated.

The rules for the Nobel Prize in Physics require that the significance of achievements being recognized has been "tested by time." In practice it means that the lag between the discovery and the award is typically on the order of 20 years and can be much longer. For example, half of the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar for his work on stellar structure and evolution that was done during the 1930s. As a downside of this approach, not all scientists live long enough for their work to be recognized. Some important scientific discoveries are never considered for a prize, as the discoverers may have died by the time the impact of their work is appreciated.


A Physics Nobel Prize laureate earns a gold medal, a diploma bearing a citation, and a sum of money. The amount of money awarded depends on the income of the Nobel Foundation that year. If a prize is awarded to more than one laureate, the money is either split evenly among them or, for three laureates, it may be divided into a half and two quarters.


The Nobel Prize medals, minted by Myntverket in Sweden and the Mint of Norway since 1902, are registered trademarks of the Nobel Foundation. Each medal has an image of Alfred Nobel in left profile on the obverse. The Nobel Prize medals for Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, and Literature have identical obverses, showing the image of Alfred Nobel and the years of his birth and death (1833–1896). Nobel's portrait also appears on the obverse of the Nobel Peace Prize medal and the Medal for the Prize in Economics, but with a slightly different design. The image on the reverse of a medal varies according to the institution awarding the prize. The reverse sides of the Nobel Prize medals for Chemistry and Physics share the same design of Nature, as a Goddess, whose veil is held up by the Genius of Science. These medals and the ones for Physiology/Medicine and Literature were designed by Erik Lindberg in 1902.


Nobel laureates receive a diploma directly from the hands of the King of Sweden. Each diploma is uniquely designed by the prize-awarding institutions for the laureate that receives it. The diploma contains a picture and text which states the name of the laureate and normally a citation of why they received the prize.

Award money

The laureate is also given a sum of money when they receive the Nobel Prize in the form of a document confirming the amount awarded; in 2009, the monetary award was 10 million SEK (US$1.4 million). Due to budget cuts, in 2012, the amount for each Nobel prize was 8 million Swedish Krona, or US$1.1 million. The amount may differ depending on how much money the Nobel Foundation can award that year. If there are two winners in a particular category, the award grant is divided equally between the recipients. If there are three, the awarding committee has the option of dividing the grant equally, or awarding one-half to one recipient and one-quarter to each of the others.


The committee and institution serving as the selection board for the prize typically announce the names of the laureates in October. The prize is then awarded at formal ceremonies held annually in Stockholm City Hall on 10 December, the anniversary of Nobel's death. The laureates receive a diploma, a medal and a document confirming the prize amount.


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