A NOBEL Dialogue

University of California, Berkeley
Department of Physics
December 3, 1970
Dr. Erik Rudberg, Chairman
Nobel Committee for Physics
Sturegatan 14
S-114 36 Stockholm, Sweden

Dear Dr. Rudberg:

     Thank you for the invitation to submit proposals for the award of the Nobel Prize for Physics for 1971.  I have read with some care the material which you have sent me about this award and I find that the specifications set forth in the will of Alfred Nobel have served to raise in my mind certain questions - concerning the manner of awarding this prize.  I would like to place these thoughts before your committee for its consideration.

     The will states that the prizes are to be awarded "to those who shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind" and it then goes on to specify that one fifth of the total award shall go "to the person responsible for the most important discovery or invention within the field of physics."  I would ask the question, Is it true that the most important discovery or invention in physics constitutes automatically a benefit for mankind?  Perhaps Nobel thought this was true and undoubtedly a great many people at his time, and up to very recent times,  have accepted this as true.  But it appears that there is now a rapidly growing body of concern, among scientists as well as among laymen throughout the world, that the abstract advances of science may be finally producing more of a threat to the future life of the whole planet than a blessing.

     My own opinion is that there is great cause for alarm in the many misuses of scientific knowledge, intentional or accidental, which we can already point to:  atomic war and other advanced technological means of destroying life, pollution from industrial and urban activities, social dislocations produced by electronic and other forms of systems control, etcetera.  Furthermore, I see this new tide of concern over the complex interaction between abstract scientific work and imminent social problems as more than just a momentary reflex on the part of a worried populace.  I believe that we are passing out of an expansive phase, where the dilute efforts of scientists could be readily absorbed into the total cultural evolution, into a saturated phase, where cause and effect - science and humanity - are intimately coupled.  This means that progress in pure science (as measured by the intellectual criteria of professional scientists) and progress for mankind (as measured by the broadest wisdom of as many men as we can consult) are not necessarity synonymous.  Thus we may have to make choices between the two.

     Another way of asking my question is to focus on the word "important" used in Nobel's will and ask whether that implies "important for physics" or "important for the benefit of mankind."  If a choice need be made between these two interpretations, I trust it will be the latter one that prevails.

     I am aware that the problems I am posing are very difficult ones and it must be the responsibility of all scientists and all thinking people to study these matters and to develop some useful guides.  Yet I would like to say why I believe that the Nobel Committee has a special obligation to give this matter its attention.

     The Nobel prize has come to be much more than a reward that comes into the life of a few scientists who have achieved some outstanding success.  It has become a goal - oftentimes the goal - throughout the working lifetime of a dominant section of the whole community of scientists.  The standards and criteria applied in the award of past prizes does have a very significant impact in  shaping the professional attitudes of most scientists.  Therefore, to the extent that the Nobel prize has been awarded predominantly for the highest achievements in the abstract searchings of fundamental physics, it has fostered an outlook among the whole body of physicists which deliberately ignores, or relegates to secondary consideration, the human and social implications of scientific work as a whole.  Thus, by some standards of evaluation it might be claimed that the prize has done more harm than good for mankind.

     I am sorry that I do not know of any ready solution to offer for this dilemma;  the working out of a healthier interrelationship between science and human affairs stands, in my mind, as the largest task facing scientists and facing mankind.

     With all due apologies for the uncomfortable position in which I may have placed you, I do have one small suggestion for your Committee:  You could declare that you will award no further prizes until such time as the major contradictions now seen between the advance of physics for its own sake and the needs of the whole human race have been resolved.  Such an announcement by your Committee might have the effect of stimulating just the sort of rethinking that is now needed to resolve the problem;  and in this way you would certainly serve best the primary objective of Nobel's bequest: to benefit mankind.

Very truly yours,
Charles Schwartz

The Royal Academy of Sciences
The Permanent Secretary
Professor Dr Erik Rudberg
Professor Dr Charles Schwartz
University of California
Berkeley, Calif 94720

Dear Professor Schwartz:

Your letter of December 3, 1970, which you wrote after you received our invitation to submit proposals for the award of the Nobel Prize for physics for 1971, has just reached me.  I thank you for your letter, so rich in its content, showing that you have thought a lot about the idea not only of having Nobel Prizes today, but really about the philosophy of scientific prizes in general.  I shall now, as best I can, try to answer your questions and comment on your proposals.

Let me first deal with these matters entirely from the attitude, which the prizeawarding bodies here have adopted, quite officially, and standing of course on their fairly old tradition now.  We think that it is the duty of the Royal Academy of Sciences,  once it has accepted to act and decide according to the will of Alfred Nobel about the prize in physics (and in chemistry) some 70 years ago - to try to give the award to the foremost achievement, in the field in question, judged from the scientific point of view.  This means, in physics, to find out what was the most outstanding, brilliant and importance-carrying achievement, which rose above the good things that others produced and perhaps marked a turningpoint in the development of its field.  The reference, in the will, to the most recent year has not been taken literally for a long time, if at all.  One has interpreted this as meaning that, even though, as was mostly the case, the decisive step which was rewarded may lie many years in the past, its importance has full actuality the day the award is given.  In the fundamental statutes for the Nobel Prizes, the possibility is foreseen that a prize of a particular year can be reserved, in the first place to be given the following year together with that year's prize.  The possibility is also there that a prize, which has been reserved, was not given the following year: in this case, according to the present fundamental statutes, the amount goes back to the main capital of the foundation.  The reasons for not awarding any prize in a particular year are implicitly considered to be, that the Academy did not find a clear case, according to the principles of the award, for bestowing the prize upon anybody that year.  It is, however, entirely foreign to the will of Alfred Nobel and to the expression that his ideas have precipitated in the fundamental statutes, that a prize should be withheld as a kind of demonstration.  - As far as we know from Alfred Nobel's writings, and from what his nearest friends and helpers have told those who made the original fundamental statutes and were instrumental in the start of the Nobel awards, Alfred Nobel had the conviction that work in the sciences which he mentioned would in itself be contributing to the benefit of mankind - at least in the long run.  I think it is fair to say that the prize-awarding bodies feel bound by this, even if the developments in recent years in the world, where ruthless people misuse the technology developed and based on achievements in pure science to evil ends - could in dark moments make them wonder, if it had not been better if we had had no technology at all.

The Academy, then, as a prize-awarding body, does not see that the Nobel activity should be discontinued, or changed radically from what it has aimed to be in the past.

Now perhaps a few of my personal remarks.  I have very deep sympathy for your ideas, that the people working in science should be sensitive to what humanity is in need of to-day.  And we must have much more understanding between the science and scientific developments on which technology is being based and the human efforts and the work of human spirit in different fields.  We must not be blind to the very pressing social needs of our days.  But a majority of the great men in science, Nobel Laureates, which I have been privileges to know, had a deep and very alive conscience of this need - and many of them were untiring in their efforts to improve matters, in the directions you are thinking about.  I think that some progress has been made.  I think that it is a great mistake, to-day, that people who find something in our society's structure wrong, bad, even very bad - that they should resort to violent demonstrations, to strikes and to acts involving destruction.  To strike is a bad way to try to convince influential people!  If the Nobel Foundation were to announce, that they were withholding prizes until the human situation had been definitely re-arranged, this would mean just an unjust strike, as I see it.

But then, these last remarks are my private views.

Finally, and despite all the doubts that you have expressed in your letter, I hope that we may receive from you some good proposal for the committee of the Nobel physics prize in 1971 to consider.

Very sincerely yours,
Erik Rudberg

The Japan Times       Tuesday,  May 4, 1971

Nobel Physics Prize Rules Need Changing: Professor

     STOCKHOLM (Kyodo-Reuter) -- Prof. Charles Schwartz, of the University of California has asked the Swedish Academy of Sciences to change the rules for awarding the Nobel Physics Prize, on the grounds that at present it may be more harmful than beneficial to mankind.

     The academy confirmed Sunday that it had received a letter from Prof. Schwartz, head of the physics faculty [not so] at the University of California in Berkeley, suggesting that the prize should not be distributed again until the rules are reappraised.

     Prof. Schwartz noted that Alfred Nobel's original instructions specified that the prizes should go to "those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind" and, in the case of the physics award, to "the person who shall have made the most important discovery or invention within the field of physics."

     The compatibility of these two sets of instructions could be questioned today, the professor wrote, as it was a moot point whether all scientific discoveries or inventions were to the benefit of mankind in view of their side-effects.  Often, they proved more harmful.

     The prize had helped to promote an attitude among the majority of scientists in which side-effects were either ignored or attributed little significance, he said.

     He added: "This means that the human and social effects of physical scientific research are being neglected."



Dr. George Gladstone,   Founder and Curator
Wonders of the World Museum,  Port Costa, California 94569   USA

The nomination is made in respect of his pioneering work on Kaolism, leading to many discoveries about the Bone Age.  (See accompanying catalog for details.)

Brief motivation:

Five years ago, when the Nobel Committee for Physics first invited me to nominate someone for this prize, I responded by suggesting, "You  could declare that you will award no further prizes until such time as the major contradictions now seen between the advance of physics for its own sake and the needs of the whole human race have been resolved."

The purpose stated by Alfred Nobel in his will -- to reward "those who shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind" -- seems to have been forgotten.  The prize, year after year, is given to scientists at the elite research centers of the imperialist nations, where the great majority of scientific work, when it has any practical application at all, is channeled toward refining the weapons of human slaughter and increasing the profits of greedy corporations.  Meanwhile, mankind suffers from unrelieved hunger and exploitation as well as the perils of global pollution and nuclear war.

These wretched conditions have not changed, but again you ask me to nominate someone to receive your prize.  How shall I respond?  My best answer is this: "Here is the amazing Dr. Gladstone, of whom I can say with confidence that his scientific genius will not be turned against mankind."


C. L. Schwartz, Professor of Physics
University of California, Berkeley, California 94720  USA
December 3, 1975