Aarhus Universitets segl

CSS Colloquium: Robert Friedman, University of Oslo

Einstein’s Nobel Prize: The Scandal Then and Now, and Why it Matters

Oplysninger om arrangementet


Onsdag 17. april 2024,  kl. 14:15 - 15:45


Aud G2 (1532-122)

On 9 November 1922, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences voted to award Albert Einstein the previously reserved 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics for “his services to theoretical physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect.” This decision prompted decades of speculation, especially with respect to the reason for omitting Einstein’s theories of relativity. Even after the opening of the Nobel archives and the start of serious historical research, confusion long continued as to what transpired and what it means.

The Academy of Sciences and related official Nobel sources have long represented the case of Einstein’s prize along lines that turn out to be incompatible with the historical record. Their version has long drawn upon physicist Abraham Pais’s flawed 1982 account. Einstein did not receive a prize for his theory of the photoelectric effect and committee member Allvar Gullstrand’s mistakes in comprehending relativity were not the cause for rejecting this heavily nominated achievement. Alternative analyses based on considerably greater detail and historically sophisticated analyses have long challenged such sanitized versions of history. They reveal the toxic effect of politics, bias, and prejudice in the Nobel proceedings.

Science past should be more than a resource for branding and heroic celebration. Embracing the full texture of history provides a reservoir of insight that can be mobilized to counter values that are antithetical to the ideals traditionally claimed by science and academia. But, as historians of science well know, speaking “truth to power” is a daunting challenge.

The talk will draw on “The 100th Anniversary of Einstein's Nobel Prize: Facts and Fiction,” Annalen der Physik (2022)  https://doi.org/10.1002/andp.202200305

Robert Marc Friedman is professor emeritus of history of science at University of Oslo. He has published on a variety of topics in the history of the environmental and polar sciences, including, Appropriating the Weather (1989). Among his contributions to the history of the Nobel science prizes are “Nobel physics prize in perspective,” Nature (1981), ”Text, context, and quicksand: Method and understanding in studying the Nobel science prizes,” Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences, 20 (1989), The Politics of Excellence: Behind the Nobel Prize in Science (2001), and “The 100th Anniversary of Einstein's Nobel Prize: Facts and Fiction,“ Annalen der Physik (2022). His professionally produced theatre plays related to the Nobel Prize include, “Remembering Miss Meitner” (2002), “Transcendence” (2015), and (forthcoming) “Golden Eggs”. He remains engaged with several research and public-outreach projects.

Coffee, tea, cake and fruit will be served before the colloquium @ 2 pm.