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This year’s Nobel Prize season approaches as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shattered decades of almost uninterrupted peace in Europe and raised the risks of a nuclear disaster.
The secretive Nobel committees never hint who will win the prizes in medicine, physics, chemistry, literature, economics or peace. It’s anyone’s guess who might win the awards being announced starting Monday.
Yet there’s no lack of urgent causes deserving the attention that comes with winning the world’s most prestigious prize: wars in Ukraine and Ethiopia, disruptions to supplies of energy and food, rising inequality, the climate crisis, the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The science prizes reward complex achievements beyond the understanding of most. But the recipients of the prizes in peace and literature are often known by a global audience, and the choices — or perceived omissions — have sometimes stirred emotional reactions.
Members of the European Parliament have called for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the people of Ukraine to be recognized this year by the Nobel Peace Prize committee for their resistance to the Russian invasion.
While that desire is understandable, that choice is unlikely because the Nobel committee has a history of honoring figures who end conflicts, not wartime leaders, said Dan Smith, director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Smith believes more likely peace prize candidates would be those fighting climate change or the International Atomic Energy Agency, a past recipient. Honoring the IAEA again would recognize its efforts to prevent a radioactive catastrophe at the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant amid fighting in Ukraine, and its work in fighting nuclear proliferation, Smith said.
“This is a really difficult period in world history, and there is not a lot of peace being made,” he said.
Promoting peace isn’t always rewarded with a Nobel. India’s Mohandas Gandhi, a prominent symbol of nonviolence, was never so honored.
In some cases, the winners have not lived out the values enshrined in the peace prize.
Just this week the Vatican acknowledged imposing disciplinary sanctions on Nobel Peace Prize-winning Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo following allegations he sexually abused boys in East Timor in the 1990s.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed won in 2019 for making peace with neighboring Eritrea. A year later, a largely ethnic conflict erupted in the country’s Tigray region. Some accuse Abiy of stoking the tensions, which have resulted in widespread atrocities. Critics have called for his Nobel to be revoked, and the Nobel committee has issued a rare admonition to him.
The Myanmar activist Aung San Suu Kyi won in 1991 for her opposition to military rule but decades later has been viewed as failing to oppose atrocities committed against the mostly Muslim Rohingya minority.
In some years, no peace prize has been awarded. The Norwegian Nobel Committee paused them during World War I, except to honor the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1917. It didn’t hand out any from 1939 to 1943 because of World War II. In 1948, the year Gandhi died, the committee made no award, citing a lack of a suitable living candidate.
The peace prize also does not always confer protection.
Last year journalists Maria Ressa of the Philippines and Dmitry Muratov of Russia were awarded “for their courageous fight for freedom of expression” in the face of authoritarian governments.
Following the invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin has cracked down even harder on independent media, including Muratov’s Novaya Gazeta, Russia’s most renowned independent newspaper. Muratov himself was attacked on a Russian train by an assailant who poured red paint over him, injuring his eyes.
The Philippines government this year ordered the shutdown of Ressa’s news organization, Rappler.
The literature prize, meanwhile, has been anything but predictable.
Few had bet on last year’s winner, Zanzibar-born, U.K.-based writer Abdulrazak Gurnah, whose books explore the personal and societal impacts of colonialism and migration.
Gurnah was only the sixth Nobel literature laureate born in Africa, and the prize has long faced criticism that it is too focused on European and North American writers. It is also male dominated, with just 16 women among its 118 laureates.
A clear contender is Salman Rushdie, the India-born writer and free-speech advocate who spent years in hiding after Iran’s clerical rulers called for his death over his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses. Rushdie, 75, was stabbed and seriously injured in August at a festival in New York state.
The list of possible winners includes literary giants from around the world: Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Japan’s Haruki Murakami, Norway’s Jon Fosse, Antigua-born Jamaica Kincaid and France’s Annie Ernaux.
The prizes to Gurnah in 2021 and U.S. poet Louise Gluck in 2020 have helped the literature prize move on from years of controversy and scandal.
In 2018, the award was postponed after sex abuse allegations rocked the Swedish Academy, which names the Nobel literature committee, and sparked an exodus of members. The academy revamped itself but faced more criticism for giving the 2019 literature award to Austria’s Peter Handke, who has been called an apologist for Serbian war crimes.
Some scientists hope the award for physiology or medicine honors colleagues instrumental in the development of the mRNA technology that went into COVID-19 vaccines, which saved millions of lives around the world.
“When we think of Nobel prizes, we think of things that are paradigm shifting, and in a way I see mRNA vaccines and their success with COVID-19 as a turning point for us,” said Deborah Fuller, a microbiology professor at the University of Washington.
Physics at times can seem arcane and difficult for the public to understand. But the last three years, the physics Nobel has honored more accessible topics: climate change computer models, black holes and planets outside our solar system.
Some harder-to-understand topics in physics — like stopping light, quantum physics and carbon nanotubes — could capture a Nobel award this year.
The Nobel announcements kick off Monday with the prize in physiology or medicine, followed by physics on Tuesday, chemistry on Wednesday and literature on Thursday. The 2022 Nobel Peace Prize will be announced on October 7 and the economics award on October 10.
The prizes carry a cash award of 10 million Swedish kronor (nearly $900,000) and will be handed out on December 10.