Art and science of guessing Nobel Prize

Guessing who will win a Nobel Prize is a bit like forecasting the stock market: Experts don’t seem to do it any better than laymen.

So if you hear professors and pundits predicting the “God particle” will be the theme of the physics prize next week, or that an American writer — finally — is due for the literature award, check their track record.

“My top candidate has never won, and it’s the fourth year I do it now,” admitted Norwegian peace researcher Kristian Harpviken, one of the most prominent voices in the annual guessing game for the Nobel Peace Prize.

A week ahead of that announcement, the Irish online betting agency Paddy Power gave the lowest odds on Friday to retired American scholar Gene Sharp, Afghan women’s rights activist Sima Samar and Tunisian blogger Lina Ben Mhenni. All have been among Harpviken's top picks in recent years.

Harpviken, who heads the PRIO peace institute in Oslo, says his speculation is based on current events, previous prizes and personal preference. “I think guessing is important in that it brings attention to what the Nobel Peace Prize should be about,” he said. “I would be very hesitant to speculate on a certain candidate who is absolutely undeserving.” The secretive prize committees rarely drop any hints. Virtually none of the Nobel guess-makers do — but that doesn’t stop them from trying.

The peace and literature prizes generate the strongest buzz, and are typically less difficult to predict than the awards for chemistry, physics, medicine and economics. The six award committees will announce one prize a day, starting with medicine on Monday and ending with the economics award on October 15. The Nobel Foundation this year lowered the prize money 20 per cent to 8 million Swedish kronor ($1.2 million), citing turmoil on financial markets. All prizes will be handed out on December 10, the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel's death in 1896.

It would have been easier to guess the winners if the Nobel committees had stuck to the will of the Swedish industrialist, who wanted the annual awards to reflect the greatest achievements “during the preceding year.” Instead, the Nobel statutes were changed so that committees can reward discoveries made decades ago, to make sure they have stood the test of time.

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