Nobel Prize: A short history of hoaxes, mix-ups and disbelief

Pranks and misundertandings do occur. Just ask Toni Morrison, Alice Monro or Donald Trump

Nobel Prize in literature winner Toni Morrison: When she got the official call in 1993, she insisted the Swedish Academy fax her the evidence. Photograph: Francois Durand/Getty Images

Nobel Prize in literature winner Toni Morrison: When she got the official call in 1993, she insisted the Swedish Academy fax her the evidence. Photograph: Francois Durand/Getty Images

 

The process involved in selecting a Nobel Prize winner – and informing them of their success – is complex. Hoaxes and mix-ups do happen.

Winners are notified by telephone, and it is not unheard of for some to demand proof or believe they have been the victim of a prank. Staffan Normark, the permanent secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, has previously revealed what he tells winners of the awards in the sciences when he makes the call. “We tell them this is a very important call. A. Very. Important. Call. From Stockholm. ”

Economist James Mirrlees, a winner in 1996, is reported to have responded with a request for hard evidence. “I politely suggested that I’d need some proof.”

Sir John Gurdon, a 2012 winner for the Physiology or Medicine prize, has said that when he received a call from the Swedish Academy telling him he had won the prize, he was suspicious it was a hoax by a friend or colleague speaking in a Swedish accent.

Occasionally, time zone conflicts add to the confusion. When it was announced that the American writer Toni Morrison had been awarded the literature prize in 1993, she was asleep. A friend called her at 7am to tell her the news. “A friend of mine … called me up at about seven o’clock in the morning and said, “You won the Nobel Prize.” And I thought, What? I thought she was seeing things … I hung up on her!” Later, when she got the official call, she insisted the Swedish Academy fax her the evidence.

It is possible to see how a prank could happen. In fact, given the secrecy surrounding the awards, and the practice of notifying winners by phone, it’s surprising they don’t happen more often. Normark has revealed that there’s a short window between the decision being made at 9.30am, and the call going through at 11.15am. Once, the committee got the wrong number, accidentally giving the most important scientific prize in the world to a scientist’s confused neighbour.

If the winners don’t pick up – and if they’re in a different time zone like Morrison, they often don’t – the announcement goes ahead without them. In 2013, @NobelPrize tweeted: “The Swedish Academy has not been able to get a hold of Alice Munro, left a phone message. #NobelPrize #Literature”

The choosing of a winner is not straightforward either. Four separate groups of people can make recommendations for nominations: members of the Swedish Academy “and of other academies, institutions and societies which are similar to it in construction and purpose”; professors of literature and of linguistics; previous winners, and presidents of international societies of authors. These nominations are considered by the four- or five- member Nobel Committee for Literature.

The Swedish Academy holds discussions in September every year to consider the nominees, before the winner is chosen in October. The successful candidate must receive over nine votes from the 18-member committee

As for runners-up, this is typically a closely guarded secret. The names of unsuccessful nominees are not revealed for 50 years.

But sometimes, one of the Nobel committees finds itself having to confirm that someone was not, in fact, a nominee. This happened in 2018, when the Norwegian Nobel committee announced that it had uncovered, for the second time in two years, what appeared to be a forged nomination for the Peace prize. It was referring the matter to the police, it said.

The recipient of the fake nomination? US president, Donald Trump.

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