In a year marked by climate change-driven disasters, political turmoil and the enduring devastation wrought by the coronavirus, the Norwegian Nobel Committee is choosing from a diverse array of 329 candidates for the Nobel Peace Prize.
The committee is scheduled to announce the recipient today at the Norwegian Nobel Institute in Oslo.
The candidates — whose names are not publicly revealed, but represent the third highest number of submissions in history — range from climate activists to political dissidents. Organizations including Reporters Without Borders and movements like Black Lives Matter are also in the running.
The pool of candidates has been chosen from the thousands of nominations submitted to the committee by academics, scientists, former winners and politicians from around the world.
Every year, speculation is rife over who will emerge from the intensely secretive voting process.
Scientists whose work has helped combat climate change and improve the environment have already been recognized in Nobel Prizes handed out earlier this week. Two scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for work that “laid the foundation of our knowledge of the Earth’s climate and how humanity influences it.” Two chemists were honored for findings that have helped lessen the impact of chemistry on the environment.
Greta Thunberg, the 18-year-old climate activist from Sweden, is widely thought to be in the running for the peace award. She has been a top contender for the prize since 2019, when Time magazine recognized her as its “Person of the Year.”
Among the hundreds of submissions, 95 are organizations. Last year, the $1 million cash prize went to the World Food Program, the United Nations agency that is the world’s largest humanitarian organization, for its efforts to combat a surge in global hunger amid the pandemic.
With the world still struggling to emerge from a pandemic that has killed more than 4.6 million people, observers have speculated that the Nobel committee might reward work being done to lessen the suffering. At the top of many shortlists is the U.N. World Health Organization, which has sought to act as the voice of authority amid a cacophony of misinformation surrounding the coronavirus.
Scientists whose work over decades led to the rapid development of vaccines that have changed the course of the pandemic, to the surprise of many, were passed over when awards for Medicine and Chemistry were announced earlier in the week. But the global vaccine initiative, Covax, could be selected for its ambitious, though struggling, efforts to promote equal access to the lifesaving vaccines.
The committee might wade into choppier geopolitical waters by selecting a prominent political dissident. Among those believed to be in the running are Svetlana Tikhanovskaya of Belarus, and Aleksei A. Navalny, whose strident opposition to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia galvanized some of the nation’s largest protests to his rule.
A Catholic Saint, a women’s right activist and a champion of education for girls. Those are three of the only 17 women who have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in its 126-year history.
With half the world made up of women, the obvious question arises: why have so few been granted the committee’s most prestigious prize and, more broadly, been generally underrepresented across the Nobel prizes?
Addressing the criticism, in 2017, the Nobel committee acknowledged its poor track record.
“We are disappointed looking at the larger perspective that more women have not been awarded,” Göran Hansson, vice chair of the board of directors of the Nobel Foundation,
“Part of it is that we go back in time to identify discoveries,” he said. “We have to wait until they have been verified and validated, before we can award the prize. There was an even larger bias against women then. There were far fewer women scientists if you go back 20 or 30 years.”
But he acknowledged other problems, including the way people are considered for prizes. Starting in 2018, he said, they would take steps to address the imbalance.
“I hope that in five years or 10 years, we will see a very different situation,” he said.
The first woman to receive the prize was Bertha von Suttner, an Austrian writer who was a leading figure in a nascent pacifist movement in Europe. She was recognized in 1905, two years after Marie Curie became the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize, in physics.
It would be another 26 years before another woman was selected for the award: the American Jane Addams, regarded as the founder of modern social work and an advocate for the concerns of children and mothers. She shared the 1931 prize with Nicholas Murray Butler, then the head of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Other women to receive the honor include Mother Teresa in 1979; the legal reformer Shirin Ebadi of Iran in 2003; the Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai in 2004 and the education activist Malala Yousafzai in 2014.
In 2011, three women shared the award: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the former president of Liberia; Leymah Gbowee, a peace activist from Liberia; and Tawakkol Karman, a journalist from Yemen who became the face of the “Arab Spring” uprising in her country.
The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded on Wednesday to Benjamin List and David W.C. MacMillan for their development of a new tool to build molecules, work that has spurred advances in pharmaceutical research and lessened the impact of chemistry on the environment.
Their work, while unseen by consumers, is an essential part in many leading industries and is crucial for research.
Chemists are among those tasked with constructing molecules that can form elastic and durable materials, store energy in batteries or inhibit the progression of diseases. That work requires catalysts, which are substances that control and accelerate chemical reactions without becoming part of the final product.
In 2000, Dr. List and Dr. MacMillan — working independently of each other — developed a new type of catalysis that reduced waste and allowed for novel ways to construct molecules. It is called asymmetric organocatalysis and builds upon small organic molecules.
Catalysis is what makes plastics possible; it also allows the manufacture of products such as food flavorings to target the taste buds and perfumes to tickle the nose. But until the discovery by the Nobel laureates, some of the catalysts used by chemists could be harmful to the environment or lead to vast amounts of waste.
The concept developed by Dr. List, a German chemist who is director at the Max Planck Institute for Coal Research, and Dr. MacMillan, a Scottish chemist and a professor at Princeton University, offered a solution. The new process paved the way for creating molecules that can serve purposes as varied as making lightweight running shoes and inhibiting the progress of disease in the body.
“Why did no one come up with this simple, green and cheap concept for asymmetric catalysis earlier?” the Nobel committee wrote. “This question has many answers. One is that the simple ideas are often the most difficult to imagine.”
Three scientists received the Nobel Prize in Physics on Tuesday for work that is essential to understanding how the Earth’s climate is changing, pinpointing the effect of human behavior on those changes and ultimately predicting the impact of global warming.
The winners were Syukuro Manabe of Princeton University, Klaus Hasselmann of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, Germany, and Giorgio Parisi of the Sapienza University of Rome.
Others have received Nobel Prizes for their work on climate change, most notably former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, but the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said this is the first time the Physics prize has been awarded specifically to a climate scientist.
Complex physical systems, such as the climate, are often defined by their disorder. This year’s winners helped bring understanding to what seemed like chaos by describing those systems and predicting their long-term behavior.
In 1967, Dr. Manabe developed a computer model that confirmed the critical connection between the primary greenhouse gas — carbon dioxide — and warming in the atmosphere. His later models, which explored connections between conditions in the ocean and atmosphere, were crucial to recognizing how increased melting of the Greenland ice sheet could affect ocean circulation in the North Atlantic, said Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University.
“He has contributed fundamentally to our understanding of human-caused climate change and dynamical mechanisms,” Dr. Mann said.
About a decade after Dr. Manabe’s foundational work, Dr. Hasselmann created a model that connected short-term climate phenomena such as rain to longer-term climate like ocean and atmospheric currents. Dr. Mann said that work laid the basis for attribution studies, a field of scientific inquiry that seeks to establish the influence of climate change on specific events like droughts, heat waves and intense rainstorms.
Dr. Parisi is credited with the discovery of the interplay of disorder and fluctuations in physical systems, including everything from a tiny collection of atoms to the atmosphere of an entire planet.
All three scientists have been working to understand the complex natural systems that have been driving climate change for decades, and their discoveries have provided the scaffolding on which predictions about climate are built.
The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded jointly on Monday to David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian, two scientists who independently discovered key mechanisms of how people sense heat, cold, touch and their own bodily movements.
Dr. Julius, a professor of physiology at the University of California, San Francisco, used a key ingredient in hot chili peppers to identify a protein in nerve cells that responds to uncomfortably hot temperatures.
Dr. Patapoutian, a molecular biologist at Scripps Research in La Jolla, Calif., led a team that, by poking individual cells with a tiny pipette, hit upon a receptor that responds to pressure, touch and the positioning of body parts.
After Dr. Julius’s pivotal discovery of a heat-sensing protein in 1997, pharmaceutical companies poured billions of dollars into looking for nonopioid drugs that could dull pain by targeting the receptors. But while research is ongoing, the related treatments have so far run into huge obstacles, scientists said, and interest from drug makers has largely dried up.
Pain and pressure were among the last frontiers of scientists’ efforts to describe the molecular basis for sensations. The 2004 Nobel Prize in Medicine was given to work clarifying how smell worked. As far back as 1967, the prize was awarded to scientists studying vision.
But unlike smell and sight, the perceptions of pain or touch are not located in an isolated part of the body, and scientists did not even know what molecules to look for. “It’s been the last main sensory system to fall to molecular analysis,” Dr. Julius said at an online briefing on Monday.
The biggest hurdle in Dr. Julius’s work was how to comb through a library of millions of DNA fragments encoding different proteins in the sensory neurons to find the one that reacts to capsaicin, the key component in chili peppers. The solution was to introduce those genes into cells that do not normally respond to capsaicin until one was discovered that made the cells capable of reacting.
In search of the molecular basis for touch, Dr. Patapoutian, too, had to sift through a number of possible genes. One by one, he and his collaborators inactivated genes until they identified the single one that, when disabled, made the cells insensitive to the poke of a tiny pipette.
Dr. Patapoutian said that he gravitated to studying the sense of touch and pain because those systems remained so mysterious. “When you find a field that’s not well understood,” he said, “it’s a great opportunity to dig in.”
The Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded on Thursday to Abdulrazak Gurnah for “his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.”
Mr. Gurnah was born in Zanzibar, which is now part of Tanzania, in 1948, and currently lives in Britain. He left Zanzibar at age 18 as a refugee after a violent 1964 uprising in which soldiers overthrew the country’s government.
He is the first African to win the award in almost two decades and the fifth overall, after Wole Soyinka of Nigeria in 1986, Naguib Mahfouz of Egypt in 1988, and the South African winners Nadine Gordimer in 1991 and John Maxwell Coetzee in 2003.
Mr. Gurnah’s 10 novels include “Memory of Departure,” “Pilgrims Way” and “Dottie,” which all deal with the immigrant experience in Britain; “Paradise,” shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1994, about a boy in an East African country scarred by colonialism; and “Admiring Silence,” about a young man who leaves Zanzibar for England, where he marries and becomes a teacher.
Gurnah’s first language is Swahili, but he adopted English as his literary language, with his prose often inflected with traces of Swahili, Arabic and German.
Anders Olsson, the chair of the committee that awards the prize, said at the news conference on Thursday that Gurnah “has consistently and with great compassion, penetrated the effects of colonialism in East Africa and its effects on the lives of uprooted and migrating individuals.”
Laura Winters, writing in The New York Times in 1996, called “Paradise” “a shimmering, oblique coming-of-age fable,” adding that “Admiring Silence” was a work that “skillfully depicts the agony of a man caught between two cultures, each of which would disown him for his links to the other.”
In an interview with the website Africainwords earlier this year, Gurnah spoke about how, throughout his career, he has been engaged with the questions of displacement, exile, identity and belonging.
“There are different ways of experiencing belonging and unbelonging,” he said. “How do people perceive themselves as part of a community? How are some included and some excluded? Who does the community belong to?”