Why Didn’t They Win? 5 Nobel Discoveries Without A Nobel Prize

The Nobel Prize can be as controversial as it is prestigious. Many group of scientists come together for research and unravel the Universe. Out of them, not all win this prestigious prize. Sometimes politics might also comes into picture. So let us have a look at 5 Nobel discoveries, that changed our lives and enabled us to understand the Universe, but never won the top honors in Sweden.

1. The Periodic Table

Hydrogen, Helium, Lithium, Beryllium, Boron, Carbon…….Remember memorising these elements of the periodic table for our exams? Well, this is one of the greatest achievement of mankind: The Periodic Table of Elements. It is the backbone of chemistry and material science. The periodic table is no mere org chart; it reveals the underlying order of protons, neutrons, and electrons that lie at the heart of all matter. Its neat columns and rows have predicted elements before they were found, and even their properties.


But, this huge discovery was never awarded the Nobel Prize. The periodic table was published by a Dmitry Mendeleev in 1869. The first Nobel Prize in chemistry, in 1901, went to Joacobus Van’t Hoff for his contribution to physical chemistry. Mendeleev still had some hopes. He was nominated for a Nobel Prize in 1905 and 1906 but lost because a committee member thought that his work was too old and well known. Mendeleev died in 1907 without winning the honor.

2. Bose-Einstein Condensates

Bosons are the particles in nature that have integral spin. The most fundamental property of bosons is that they do not obey Pauli’s exclusion principle. Thus any number of bosons can occupy the same quantum state, unlike electrons which are fermions. So what happens is, at a very low temperature, all these bosons come down to occupy the same quantum state and form what is known as Bose Einstein condensate.


The theory of BE condensates was put forward by the Indian Physicist, Satyendra Nath Bose. He was nominated 3 times for the Nobel Prize in Physics. However, he was never awarded the prize because a committee member, Oskar Klein, thought his work isn’t worthy of a Nobel.

The word Bosons is named after Satyendra Nath Bose.

Also Read: 5 Pairs Of Scientists Who ‘Heartily’ Hated Each Other

3. The General Theory of Relativity

Guess what? One of the two pillars on which Physics stands, was never awarded a Nobel Prize. Albert Einstein won the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics for photoelectric effect and not for his greatest work: Relativity. Modern scientists say that General Relativity is the greatest thought that has come from a single mind in the history of mankind. Brian Greene, a well known physicist, said in a “Late Night Show” with Stephen Colbert that all his work is just an extension of the path that Einstein laid a hundred years ago.


After the WWI, antisemitism was on the rise in Germany; Jews were being scapegoated for the country’s defeat in the war. As both Jew and pacifist, Einstein was an obvious target. The complexity of relativity did not help either. Opponents such as Ernst Gehrcke and Philipp Lenard found it easy to cast doubt upon its labyrinthine mathematics. The situation reached crisis point in 1921 when, paralysed by indecision, the Nobel Committee decided it was better not to award a prize at all than to give it to relativity. At the suggestion of Carl Wilhelm Oseen, Einstein would receive the deferred 1921 prize, but not for relativity. He would be given it for his explanation of the photoelectric effect, a phenomenon in which electrons are emitted from a metal sheet only under certain illuminations. The work had been published back in 1905.

4. The Quarks

Murray Gell-Mann won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1969 “for his contributions and discoveries concerning the classification of elementary particles and their interactions.”

But no prize has been awarded specifically recognizing the idea he’s most renowned for: the quark. These tiniest constituents of matter join to form protons, neutrons, and other particles. Their discovery (using pencil and paper, the theoretical physicist’s most powerful tools) led to a deeper understanding of the physical world.

5. Classification of Stars

Cannon was an American astronomer hired by Edward Pickering, along with other women (collectively referred to as “Pickering’s Harem”), to work at the Harvard Observatory mapping and classifying every star in the sky. Without these women, whom he called “computers,” Pickering could not have catalogued all those stars.


Cannon was arguably the most accomplished of Pickering’s computers. During her career she observed and classified over 200,000 stars. But more importantly, she devised a star classification system to categorise stars based on spectral absorption lines. Though her contributions were not recognised during her forty-year astronomy career, her work lives on in the mnemonic device “Oh Be A Fine Girl, Kiss Me!” which helps astronomy students remember star types in order of decreasing temperature. Read (This Is How 1 Trillion Trillion Stars In The Universe Are Categorised Into 7 Groups) for more.

Also Read: Against All Odds: 5 Lessons From The Short Life Of S.Ramanujan


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