• Monica Manescu, AAHS

The Nobel Prizes of 2020



The Nobel Prize is perhaps the most admirable accolade an individual can receive. Distributed for more than a century, since 1901, the prize is due to the generosity of inventor Alfred Nobel. Alfred Nobel, the founder of dynamite, dedicated a majority of his fortune to awarding those who “have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” The Nobel Prizes cover six fields: Medicine, Physics, Chemistry, Peace, Literature, and Economic Science.


This year, the Nobel Prize announcements were made by a set of Swedish and Norwegian committees from October five to 12. After President Donald Trump was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize a third time, many began wondering how the process works, and who exactly can nominate others. Although the list can be pretty long, those who do have this privilege include members of the national government, previous recipients or members of organizations that have received Nobel Prizes, university professors or staff, and many others. After committees review the nominations, they select a few to form a list, and, finally, they vote to establish the winner.


The 2020 Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to Drs. Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles M. Rice for discovering the Hepatitis C virus. This microbe causes an illness that leads to inflammation of the liver, cirrhosis, and even liver cancer. Before this medical breakthrough, the causes of Hepatitis A and B were known, but not for the form of hepatitis that was spread through the blood. More accurate tests for the Hepatitis C virus are now available, and cases have decreased considerably as more measures have been taken to fight Hepatitis C, all thanks to their work.


Decades ago, in 1965, Roger Penrose proved the existence of black holes which Albert Einstein had predicted in his General Theory of Relativity, an understanding of the universe explaining that gravity causes space time to be curved. For this, Roger Penrose, the scientist who made this discovery, received the Nobel Prize in Physics. Penrose described black holes in detail, noting that the laws of physics do not apply to blackholes, which is a very important breakthrough. The other two recipients of the prize, Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez, were rewarded for their revelation that there is an extremely heavy body centrally located in our galaxy, which physicists presume is a black hole. These advancements in the field of physics have unraveled much about these mysterious entities.


Humanity’s ability to edit life’s code is fairly new, revolutionary. Even more so, however, are the CRISPR-Cas9 scissors, developed in 2012 by Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna. Before this innovation, experts had to change the actual genes in cells, which was neither easy nor cost-efficient. Scientists can now accurately alter the DNA of a variety of organisms including plants, animals, and even microorganisms in a faster and more efficient way than ever. Particularly, this process may take only a couple of weeks using CRISPR-Cas9. In the future, this finding could serve as a crucial tool in the research for new cancer treatments and in discovering cures for many other diseases. For these reasons, Charpentier and Doudna were presented with the prestigious Nobel Prize in Chemistry this year. “There is enormous power in this genetic tool, which affects us all. It has not only revolutionised basic science, but also resulted in innovative crops and will lead to ground-breaking new medical treatments,” Claes Gustafsson, an important leader in the Nobel Committee for Chemistry, stated.


Louise Glück was announced as the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature for her beautiful poetry. The Nobel committee commended her for “‘her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal’” (“The Nobel Prize in Literature 2020”). Among her collections of poetry include Vita Nova, Averno, The Wild Iris, which earned the Pulitzer Prize, and her latest, Faithful and Virtuous Night, which was previously awarded the National Book Award. Glück’s poems often display universal themes of betrayal, loss, and rejection, allowing many readers to emotionally connect with her pieces. For example, Vita Nova is centered on the events following an unfortunately broken marriage. Many times, Glück incorporates mythology into works, such as in Meadowlands, whose narrators are the Greek characters Odysseus and Penelope. Here is a link to the Academy of American Poets website, which offers a wide array of Glück’s poems: https://poets.org/poems/louise-gluck.


The Norwegian committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to the World Food Programme or the WFP, a humanitarian organization that is part of United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) and has put lots of effort into the fight against hunger. UNICEF is a major organization within the United Nations that aims to aid children around the world. The WFP, additionally, strives to end hunger and to establish food security by 2030. The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the number of people suffering from hunger, but the WFP has prevailed and continues to supply its services successfully. In fact, so far, the WFP has helped 97 million people, delivering as much as 15 billion food rations a year via trucks, planes, and ships to a vast number of areas, regardless of how remote they are. The WFP has also invested in smaller businesses and farmers to ensure the success of local economies. The Nobel committee found that the WFP didn’t just work arduously to fight hunger, but it also tried to maintain more peaceful conditions in areas experiencing conflict, so that hunger is not used as a “weapon of war.”


Finally, the recipients of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences are Paul Milgrom and Robert Wilson for their studies on the functions and improvements on the process of auctioning. Their work has benefited many people around the world including buyers and sellers.


Nobel Prize Week, which is a time dedicated to laureate recognition and celebration, is still scheduled for the second week of December, but will occur in different ways due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This eventful and joyful week consists of the Nobel Prize ceremony, the Nobel Prize Banquet, and the Nobel Prize Concert.

Usually, the Nobel Prize ceremony, in which the laureates receive their awards, including a medal and a diploma from the King of Sweden, is held in Konserthuset, Stockholm. This year, however, it will be held online on Thursday, December 10, 2020. It will be broadcasted from the Stockholm City Hall, where a very small number of spectators will be able to attend in person. The Nobel Peace Prize ceremony will occur in person at the University of Oslo, Norway on the same date. Of course, the audience will also be limited, and there will be an option for laureates and others to attend virtually, as well.


Unfortunately, the Nobel Prize Banquet, which is a huge celebration involving entertainment and an elegant dinner with many courses, is cancelled for this year, but the award-winners will be invited to attend next year’s instead. Often, as many as 1300 members attend, including government employees, important members of universities, relatives and friends of the laureates, and even the Royal Family of Sweden. This is actually the first time that the banquet has not been held since 1965, when it was cancelled due to political reasons tied to the Hungarian Revolution at the time.


On the bright side, the Nobel Prize Concert will still go as planned, but it will be, similarly, online with a small audience witnessing the performance in person on December 8, 2020. It will be broadcasted live from the Stockholm Concert Hall and will feature Igor Levit, a renowned pianist who has gained lots of popularity from his home during the quarantine, along with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Stéphane Denève.


The COVID-19 pandemic has presented many challenges for our world, but humanity has persevered. Whether it comes to advancements that continue to be made in science, medicine, literature, or other domains, or to the solutions that allow this year’s Nobel Prize, people continue to persevere through this difficult time. All of this year’s laureates have made prominent impacts in their respective fields and, ultimately, to our world. They should be commended for their contributions towards the continued growth and success of humanity.

Works Cited

“2020 Nobel Prize Winners: Full List.” The New York Times, The New York Times Company, 12 Oct. 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/article/2020-nobel-prize-winners.html. Accessed 20 Oct. 2020.


“Alfred Nobel’s life and work.” NobelPrize.org, Nobel Media AB, 2020, https://www.nobelprize.org/alfred-nobel/alfred-nobels-life-and-work/#:~:text=In%201901%2C%20the%20first%20Nobel,Academy%20of%20Music%20in%20Stockholm. Accessed 27 October 2020.

“Biobibliographical Notes.” NobelPrize.org, Nobel Media AB, 2020, https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/2020/bio-bibliography/. Accessed 4 November 2020.

“Louise Glück.” The Poetry Foundation, 2020, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/louise-gluck. Accessed 6 November 2020.

“Nobel Prize banquet cancelled over coronavirus: Nobel Foundation.” Phys.Org, Science X Network, 21 July 2020, https://phys.org/news/2020-07-nobel-prize-banquet-cancelled-coronavirus.html#:~:text=The%20announcement%20of%20the%20prizes,held%20in%20%22new%20forms%22. Accessed 27 October 2020.


“Nomination and selection of Peace Prize Laureates.” NobelPrize.org, Nobel Media AB, September 2016, https://www.nobelprize.org/nomination/peace/#:~:text=These%20nominations%20will%20be%20submitted,previous%20Nobel%20Peace%20Prize%20Laureates%3B. Accessed 4 November 2020.


“Prize announcement dates.” NobelPrize.org, Nobel Media AB, October 2020, https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/about/prize-announcement-dates/. Accessed 27 October 2020.


“The Nobel Week will assume new formats.” NobelPrize.org, Nobel Media AB, 2020, https://www.nobelprize.org/press-nobel-week-will-assume-new-formats/. Accessed 27 October 2020.


World Food Programme. “Overview.” United Nations World Food Programme, World Food Programme, 2020, https://www.wfp.org/overview. Accessed 6 November 2020.

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