The difficult task to award Einstein a Nobel Prize

Karl Grandin


On a hot summer afternoon in 1923 in the Conference Hall at the Gothenburg Jubilee Exhibition, Albert Einstein gave a talk on “Fundamental ideas and problems of the theory of relativity” as can be seen in fig. 1. In the large audience, besides the conference participants at the 17th Scandinavian Natural Sciences Meeting, were in the front row the Swedish King, Gustav V, and Svante Arrhenius (1859–1927) the man responsible for inviting Einstein. This lecture became Einstein’s Nobel Lecture for his 1921 Nobel Prize in physics that was awarded in 1922.

What was the background to this? Why on Earth did such a large crowd attend a physics lecture in the middle of a heat wave and why was Einstein not awarded the Nobel Prize for his theories of relativity as most people would expect? This paper will search for an explanation by looking into the evaluation work of Einstein for the Nobel Prize.

1 How the Nobel Prize works

The statutes of the Nobel Foundation govern how the Nobel system works. It is based on Alfred Nobel’s will, but the Nobel Foundation is nowhere mentioned in the will. The Nobel Foundation was instead created by the Prize awarding institutions to manage their common interests and facilitate the general collaboration between the Prize awarders. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, mentioned in the will, awards the Nobel Prizes in physics and chemistry. Each Prize awarder also has their separate statutes that govern the evaluation work. Only invited nominators in certain categories are entitled to nominate. A successful candidate must have at least one nomination, but it is not automatically so that the most nominations get you the Prize. A five-person Nobel committee then evaluates all nominees, and the committee decides who are the most interesting candidates who are subjected to special reports. Then the Nobel Committee writes up a general report briefly discussing all nominees before presenting more extensive coverage of the main contenders, and most reasoning goes into that year’s committee proposal in the end. Then the proposal is discussed by the physics class of the Academy and finally there is the formal vote in pleno where all members of the Academy have the right to vote.

During the period from the first nomination of Einstein in 1910 until he was awarded the 1921 Prize in 1922 there was an increasing number of nominations as can be seen from fig. 2, but it was not until 1919, when the Nobel Committee made its first special evaluation of Einstein, and then it was the case of the Brownian motion.

2 Nominations of Einstein

Aant Elzinga, who has closely studied Einstein and the Nobel Prize, has grouped the nominations for Einstein in three periods. In the first period of nominations (1910–1914) it was mostly the special relativity that was proposed.

For these early nominations the Nobel Committee did not make any special report thus indicating that Einstein was not yet considered a main candidate. From the general reports it was claimed that an award would be premature, and the often-used argument that it would be better to await further results and possible confirmations was raised. Also, counterarguments like that the special relativity theory had no practical importance and thus of no benefit to mankind to quote from Nobel’s will were raised. Another argument was that it was a question of theory of knowledge rather than physics.

The second period (1915–1919) saw an increase in nominations where other work by Einstein was proposed as his work on the Brownian motion. But most of the other nominations kept suggesting Einstein for the special relativity theory and now also the general theory of relativity. Some nominators apparently sensed the committee’s unease with theoretical work and pointed out that Einstein had done experimental work. Now the committee argued that others had precedence, when it came to the Brownian motion and as for the general relativity theory only Mercury’s perihelion precession supported the theory whereas gravitational redshift and light bending were not yet confirmed. Also, arguments that the general theory of relativity was just a belief rather than a proper physical theory was raised.

The third period (1920–1922) is of course marked by the attention the famous 1919 solar eclipse expeditions got, as seen in fig. 3. Nominations were soaring and almost all were arguing for the theories of relativity. But one nominator suggested the photoelectric effect. Now the Nobel Committee, not ready to award Einstein, questioned the validity of the solar eclipse data and also questioned the 1921 nomination for Einstein for the photoelectric effect, where Arrhenius in his special report would argue that it was a lucky guess by Einstein and that it was experimentalists that had made the work worthy of recognition.

3 Special reports on Einstein

Let us now look at the special reports on Einstein as can be seen in table 1. In 1919 there were nominations for The Svedberg and Jean Perrin for their work on the motions of molecules, but since their work was based on Einstein’s work on the Brownian motion Arrhenius had been asked by his colleagues in the committee to also nominate Einstein for the sake of thoroughness. Arrhenius also got the task to write the special report on the three, where he concluded the section on Einstein:

As far as the prize-awarding of these works is concerned, it must be confessed that they have had as great a value for experimental research as Einstein’s other works. Nevertheless, Einstein’s theoretical work, the theory of relativity and the quantum theory, are by far most proposed of the majority of nominators compared to his molecular kinetic works, when it comes to awarding him with the Nobel Prize. This is undoubtedly due to the fact that these first-mentioned works seem far more apt to change our conception of nature and therefore have a greater significance than the molecular kinetic studies, which are in the very best agreement with, and are a consequence of, the classical conception of the motion of molecules. It would therefore, no doubt, seem strange to the learned world if Einstein received a prize precisely for the works referred to here, notwithstanding their obviously great merit and usefulness for the development of science, and not for his other great works, which is what have attracted the attention of nominators.

So, the argument was that Einstein could not be awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on the Brownian motion since his peers expected it to be for the theories of relativity or quantum theory. This meant that Perrin and Svedberg also were put on hold until 1926 when Perrin got the physics prize and Svedberg the chemistry prize. Instead, Max Planck was awarded the reserved 1918 Nobel Prize for physics “in recognition of the services he rendered to the advancement of Physics by his discovery of energy quanta” and Johannes Stark was awarded the 1919 Nobel Prize in physics for “for his discovery of the Doppler effect in canal rays and the splitting of spectral lines in electric fields”.

The next year, in 1920, Svante Arrhenius followed up his own argument and made a special report on Einstein’s theories of relativity in light of the results from the solar eclipse the previous year. Now Einstein was the candidate that had the most nominations and also by important nominators. Arguments were again made for Einstein’s theories of the Brownian motion, the specific heat, but most of all for the theories of relativity. And as for the general theory of relativity there were discussions of the three specific cases where the theory could be put to the test.

1. The shift of Mercury’s perihelion (where Einstein’s theory was in agreement with observations).
2. The bending of light by the Sun (where there were arguments for and against the accuracy of the observations).
3. The redshift of lines in the solar spectra (which could not yet be detected).

Arrhenius in his report described the great interest and astonishment that had followed the presentation of the solar eclipse results at the joint meeting in November 1919 with the Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society. But he also reported on the subsequent critique. Although there was much in favour of the Mercury perihelion shift, Arrhenius also brought up critique and other explanations. For the red shift he, quite lengthy, presented the tests that had been made and none delivered any clear support: “In any case, this effect on wavelength seems unsuitable for supporting Einstein’s theory”. Arrhenius even observed at the end of his report that there had appeared both uncritical admiration and unjust critique of Einstein.

The Nobel Prize in physics for 1920 instead went to the director of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, Charles Edouard Guillaume, “in recognition of the service he has rendered to precision measurements in Physics by his discovery of anomalies in nickel steel alloys”.

Next year in 1921, there were even more nominations for Einstein. So, this year there were two special reports made on Einstein. One was written by Allvar Gullstrand (1862–1930) on the theories of relativity and the other one, due to a new nomination for the photoelectric effect, on which Arrhenius wrote the report.

Almost half of the general report in 1921 deals with Einstein. It first summed up arguments from Gullstrand’s special report and regarding the experimental tests of the theories of relativity that they had neither contradicted nor confirmed, and it was stated that “it demands a great deal of conviction in respect to phenomena, which lie entirely outside experience, it does not seem to meet the requirements which should apply to the awarding of the Nobel Prize”. Then followed brief summaries of the three different test options of Einstein’s theory arguing that they did not give any clear support. Gullstrand’s report also called into question the shift of Mercury’s perihelion, that many considered a solid argument for Einstein. Gullstrand, however, claimed that for now it was not clear if Einstein’s theory could be considered in agreement with Leverrier’s measurements. And since the general theory of relativity “so far in no way has been satisfactorily confirmed by experience, the committee does not currently consider themselves able to propose him for a Nobel Prize”. The end verdict this year was to wait for further observations and tests to determine the fortune of Einstein. This is a fate that Einstein has shared with many over the years, a cautious policy has perhaps helped the Nobel institution over the years. It must not be wrong. Noteworthy is that the general report in 1921 used terms as “Einstein’s followers” in connection with the discussion of the relativity theories. Normally, the general reports are very matter of fact, without references to anything outside the physics at hand. So, this phrase is special and cannot be understood in any positive sense.

But the general report continued with Einstein’s photoelectric effect. This was more summarily dismissed this year, based on the special report by Arrhenius, claiming that others than Einstein had been crucial in making the experimental work. Arrhenius also dismissed the argument from the nomination that the photoelectric law is fundamental for the quantum theory and its successful dealing with atomic phenomena. And since the 1918 Prize had gone to Planck, it was argued that this had already been awarded. So, prospects for Einstein seemed gloomy and the committee recommended that, since no prizeworthy candidate at all was at hand, the 1921 Nobel Prize should be reserved until next year, and such became the decision of the Academy.

4 Solving the gridlock

Something needed to change if this deadlock should go away. This dominance of experimentalists and experimental ethos in the committee has been observed by historians. And it was quite remarkable that the two members that got the task to evaluate Einstein were Allvar Gullstrand, a professor of ophtalmology and Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine in 1911, and Svante Arrhenius, director of the Nobel Institute for Physical Chemistry and Nobel Laureate in chemistry in 1903. The five-person physics committee did not have any professional theoretical physicist among them at this time.

There were two professors of mathematical physics in Sweden. At Lund University the professor was an expert on sea currents and at this time not a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The other professor of mathematical physics was also an expert on hydrodynamics, Carl Wilhelm Oseen (1879–1944). He became professor already in 1909 at Uppsala University, but had for many years during the 1910s struggled with tuberculosis. He had early on taken an interest in Niels Bohr and together with Rutherford he helped the Dane to get his professorship. He had also debated some aspects of quantum theory with Planck in 1914. Niels and Margarethe Bohr had visited Oseen in 1913 while the Swede stayed at a sanatorium the months before Bohr published his famous papers on the atomic structure. In 1919 Oseen held a summer lecture series for teachers about the quantum theory and the theories of relativity. From these lectures we can conclude that he was positive although not uncritical to these theories. The lectures, together with the attention that the solar eclipse observations added, helped initiate the founding of the Swedish Physical Society in 1920, where Oseen became the first president. His training from Lund University was in mathematics, so in 1921 he got elected to the Swedish Academy of Sciences, at first to a mathematical class. Later in 1922 he was transferred to the physics class. And more importantly already in the autumn of 1921 Oseen had been adjoined to the Nobel Committee for physics. And at the first meeting he attended, where the above-mentioned decision to reserve the 1921 Prize was recommended by the class, he managed to invoke a possible future opening for the photoelectric law and he:

emphasized that this discovery could gain further significance in the future, which is why he hoped that the committee’s statement should not be understood that the matter was decided once and for all.

In view of this and after further deliberation, the class decided to state that Einstein’s law for the photoelectric effect must be ascribed great importance, but that any awarding of the prize should wait until a more reliable understanding was attained of its significance for science.

For a long time, the Nobel Committee had relied on Gullstrand’s investigations of Einstein’s theory of relativity for the candidacy, and he found the whole thing to be a matter of “belief.” His correspondence with Oseen from this time shows that Gullstrand constantly tried to find errors in Einstein’s theory, whereupon Oseen rejected his objections. At one point, Oseen wrote that it “took a few minutes” for him to dismiss the problem that Gullstrand had posed. But Gullstrand returned with “the fable of the clock that slows down” which was something for “the relativist believer”.

5 Oseen’s tandem solution

1922 became a busy year for Oseen. In May 1922 the astronomer and astrophysicist Bernhard Hasselberg died after years of dwindling health. His last major impact on the committee’s work had been the prize for Guillaume. In September 1922 Gullstrand proposed that Oseen should replace Hasselberg in the committee and brought up Oseen’s grasp of theoretical physics as beneficial for the committee’s work. The nomination was signed by two other members as well as by The Svedberg, member of the chemistry committee. It should also be noted that Oseen was still only member of the applied mathematics and astronomy class and had to be adjoined, not only to the Nobel committee, but also to the physics class to take part in the class’ discussions of the Nobel committee’s proposals. But already before this decision the Nobel committee had submitted its recommendation to the Academy of the two available Nobel Prizes in physics (1921 & 1922), and before that, during the summer, the special reports, by the adjoint member Oseen, had been submitted.

But other important events had also taken place in this context during the summer of 1922. In June Niels Bohr was invited to deliver the Wolfskehl lectures in Göttingen. He travelled there accompanied by his Swedish assistant at this time, Oskar Klein, and they stayed at an inn in the outskirts of the city. At the same inn Oseen also boarded. He was making a rare trip and was anxious to listen to his old friend Niels Bohr and meet other colleagues, as can be seen from fig. 4 and fig. 5. At this conference Bohr presented Hendrik Kramers’ dispersion theory, to which a young Werner Heisenberg raised objections.

Oseen already had a very positive opinion of Bohr’s work, and despite the criticism made by Heisenberg in Göttingen (that actually impressed Bohr), Oseen returned to Uppsala where he sat down and wrote two special Nobel reports, one on Bohr and one on Einstein, see fig. 6. He finished his 34 pages report on Bohr, “Bohr’s atomic theory,” on August 9, and a few days later, on August 13, he finished his 12 pages report on “Einstein’s law for the photoelectric effect”. After submitting these reports he had ten days before the second Nordic Physicist Meeting started in Uppsala, where he was one of the organizers. Bohr attended giving the main lecture “On the Explanation of the Periodic System.” The meeting provided another opportunity for Bohr and Oseen to meet. This conference can be seen as an important step in establishing theoretical atomic physics as a central area for physics among Nordic physicists. It was also considered as something of a “summit meeting” between Oseen and Bohr.

If we look closer at the evaluations by Oseen in 1922, it becomes clear that to him Bohr and Einstein were a tandem. Bohr’s work was based on Einstein’s theory and Einstein’s theory became more palatable when connected to Bohr’s work. Such a solution would manage a Nobel Prize to Einstein, but avoiding the contested issue of the relativity theories, and at the same time solving the pressure of all the nominations for Einstein. No one but Oseen ever nominated Einstein only for the photoelectric effect. He was well aware of the opposition to Einstein’s relativity theories and the political and cultural aspects pertaining to them. However, he was a supporter and one of few in Sweden that actually understood the general theory of relativity at this time. And since there were two available prizes in 1922 it was an opportunity that could not be missed. The postponing in 1921 might thus actually have helped to accommodate the solution in 1922.

6 Finally, a Nobel Prize for Einstein

Looking closer at Oseen’s reports we can note the different sections, after the first theoretical examination he addressed the experimental confirmations of Einstein’s law. And the usage of “law” of course underscores the irrefutable nature of the theory. Especially Millikan’s work was referred to. Then came a section “The Einstein law and Bohr’s atomic theory” which concluded: “The Einstein proposition and Bohr’s objectively identical frequency conditions are currently one of the most trustworthy propositions in physics”. Then followed a section “A look at Einstein’s activities,” where other Einstein’s important contributions were listed. The first group was his works based on classical physics like the Brownian motion, the second group was his writings on the quantum theory, like his papers on the specific heat. The third group was his contributions to electromagnetic theory to which his special theory of relativity was counted. The fourth group was the general theory of relativity. All very important contributions depending on one’s particular interest. “In any case, no other discovery made by Einstein than his proposition on the quantum emission and absorption of light has generated as much interest in measuring physics” Oseen stated. This argument was set to thwart any objections from the overly cautious experimentalists in the committee and in the physics class.

Most important is of course the concluding part:

At a time when physicists, with few exceptions, were opposed to Planck’s quantum theory, Einstein has shown through an original and astute analysis that the energy exchange between matter and ether must take place in such a way that an atom emits or absorbs an energy quantum hν, where ν is the oscillation number. As an application of this proposition, Einstein has established the law that if an electron is photoelectrically triggered from a substance, its energy after release must have the value $h\nu – P$, where $P$ is the work needed to release the electron from the substance. This law has been most beautifully confirmed by measurements by Millikan and others. Einstein’s proposition has received its greatest significance and also the most convincing confirmation in that it is one of the assumptions on which Bohr built his atomic theory. Almost all confirmations of Bohr’s atomic theory are also confirmations of Einstein’s proposition.

The discovery of Einstein’s law is without a doubt one of the most significant events in the history of physics. Its discoverer seems to me to fully deserve a Nobel Prize in physics.

A stronger endorsement cannot be phrased but let us also briefly examine Oseen’s report on Bohr. The different sections gave a hint of the way his argument went: “The historical assumptions for Bohr’s atomic theory”, “The basis for Bohr’s theory of 1913”, “The results of Bohr’s theory from 1913”, “Theory for the Stark effect and the Zeeman effect”, “Bohr’s correspondence principle”, “Bohr’s rule for determining the stationary states”, “The atomic theory’s development 1913–1921”, “Bohr’s atomic theory of 1921”, “Confirmations of Bohr’s theory”, and “Difficulties in Bohr’s atomic theory” concluded the report and the final words should be noted:

The cornerstone of Bohr’s thought structure, the Einstein-Bohr condition $\epsilon_{1} - \epsilon_{2} = h\nu$, has, through studies by Franck et al. received an extremely comprehensive and overwhelming confirmation. [...] Finally, if one asks whether the Bohr atomic theory is worthy of a Nobel Prize in physics, it seems to me that the answer can be no other than this. Both with regard to its already confirmed findings and with regard to the powerful stimulus that this theory has given to both experimental and theoretical physics, Bohr’s atomic theory seems to me fully worthy of a Nobel Prize.

Also, an extremely strong endorsement. There was also another seven pages special report in 1922 by Allvar Gullstrand supplementing his special report from the previous year on Einstein’s theories of relativity. Here Gullstrand reiterated that these theories were a “matter of faith”, and he went through the three tests for the general theory. For the red shift Gullstrand quoted von Laue that there was room for further tests. And he continued to quote von Laue that there was no absolute certainty and that there was room for more and further investigations. For the perihelion test Gullstrand referred to some papers that did not fully support Einstein’s theory, and that any certain judgment therefore would have to wait. He also referred several times to “followers of the relativity theory”, and concluded:

It should be clear from the above that my opinion from last year that Einstein cannot at present be advocated for the award of the Nobel Prize in Physics, either for the special or the general theory of relativity or for the combined value of these theories, is not only still valid, but has been further confirmed by subsequent publications.

Despite Gullstrand’s stubborn objections to relativity, Oseen convinced his colleagues in the Nobel Committee for his tandem solution, and Gullstrand could still be content that the relativity theories were not awarded a Nobel Prize. The general report also stated that there was an overwhelming number of nominations for Einstein, which might have made the Committee and the Academy members extra prone to accept Oseen’s solution. Most nominations for Einstein were for the relativity theories, and only Oseen had nominated Einstein exclusively for the photoelectric effect. The committee referred to Gullstrand’s present and prior reports and to Arrhenius previous report and the committee “maintained its verdict from last year and considered itself unable to propose Einstein for the Nobel Prize for his theories of relativity and gravitation”. Then the report continued discussing Einstein and Bohr simultaneously according to Oseen’s arguments and concluded:

Due to what the committee here had the honour to state, may the committee suggest that of the two available Nobel Prizes for Physics, the one reserved from the previous year should be awarded to Professor Albert Einstein in Berlin for his merits in theoretical physics, especially his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect; and that this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics should be awarded to Professor Niels Bohr in Copenhagen for his merits in exploring the structure of atoms and the radiation emanating from them.

The class did approve of this suggestion by the Nobel Committee, which basically was Oseen’s tandem solution.

All this was well-received, also in the Academy in pleno and on November 9, 1922 the decision was made at the Nobel meeting of the Academy to award Einstein the reserved 1921 Physics Prize and Niels Bohr the 1922 Physics Prize. Noteworthy is that the Academy was anxious to keep any trace of the theories of relativity out of the motivation and they changed the phrase: “for his services to Theoretical Physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect” adding “regardless of the value that, after any confirmation, could be attributed to the theories of relativity and gravity, [...] award the 1921 prize [...] to Albert Einstein for his services to Theoretical Physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect.” This text also made it onto Einstein’s Nobel diploma making it stand out as the only Nobel diploma with text stating what the Laureate was not awarded for. The most common interpretation of this is that it is a symptom of the anxious and perhaps not so brilliant Swedish Committee. That could well be the case, but another interpretation might be possible as we shall see.

7 The end of nominations

Oseen had managed an incredible feat to have two of his own candidates each being awarded the Nobel Prize and thus defusing the difficult situation with the many nominations for Einstein. And as we have seen, the Nobel Prize to Einstein was intrinsically coupled to the Nobel Prize to Bohr and vice versa. Also clear is that it was all Oseen’s doing. No one beside members of the Nobel Committee could fully understand what had played out, but some people did. Oseen’s former colleague from Uppsala, Eva von Bahr-Bergius, was pleased with the end result and wrote to Oseen:

More than one month ago – when the names of the Nobel laureates were announced – I was determined to write to you. I felt a need to thank you for being there and taking care of the Nobel Prizes, so that physicists will not make a fool of themselves in the same way as the Swedish [Literary] Academy. Because your influence on these matters is very great, I understand very well. I would very much wish that someday you alone could be in charge of the Nobel Prizes, but I am afraid that you write such learned things that – at least here in Sweden – there is no one who can judge them.

I assume that there was a controversy about Einstein’s name. His opponents, who succeeded in excluding the theory of relativity from the prize statement, have thereby simply ensured that in the future he will receive the prize one more time.

So, this is another possible interpretation. That the non-awarding of the theories of relativity would only mean that Einstein would be awarded the Nobel Prize again. And there were no formal objections to such a chain of events, Marie Curie had a decade earlier received her second Nobel Prize. And Einstein if any could have been nominated again for the theories of relativity and other works. But the fact is that that did not happen. The following year there were two nominations for him, but they were actually late arrivals from the previous year. And thereafter there are no nominations at all for Einstein. So, apparently his peers considered that he was now put up on the Nobel shelf, which is also telling of how awards in science may function, especially the Nobel Prize.

But let us return to where we started. Einstein did not come to Stockholm to pick up his Nobel Prize, he was on a boat on his way from the USA to Japan, when the news broke, and there was no possibility for him to make it to the Prize awarding events in Stockholm. Since it is mandatory to deliver a Nobel Prize Lecture to receive the prize amount, he eventually came to Sweden the year after, and invited by Svante Arrhenius he delivered a lecture in Gothenburg on July 11, 1923 on “Fundamental ideas and problems of the theory of relativity.” But that was not the work he had been awarded for. But since most people were more interested in a lecture on relativity theory than the photoelectric effect as can be seen in the large crowd in fig. 1, this is what Arrhenius asked Einstein to talk about. And immediately after Arrhenius delivered the manuscript of the lecture for the Nobel Foundation yearbook, Les Prix Nobel, as Einstein’s Nobel Lecture. This was questioned in the Academy, but Arrhenius then said that the manuscript had already been set, and proofs already sent out. So, it was agreed that it should be allowed. Among Einstein’s critics in Sweden this caused an outrage and a lot of complaints to the Academy that had let this pass, complaints arrived also from abroad. The lecture should take place within six months, but this was after seven months; the lecture should take place in Stockholm, and most of all it should be about the Prize awarded work. There had been instances of delay earlier, the Curies held their lecture one and a half year late, but they held it in Stockholm and on the topic they had been awarded for at least. The reason for Arrhenius’ actions might be found in his argument in the 1919 special report not to award Einstein for the Brownian motion, since it would be strange if Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize for anything else than the theories of relativity. This is why Einstein’s Nobel lecture is about the theories of relativity, for which he was not awarded the Nobel Prize.