The Nobel Prize is widely regarded as the most prestigious award given for intellectual achievement in several categories.
The prize is named after Swedish chemist Alfred Bernhard Nobel, who invented numerous explosives, including dynamite, and held 355 different patents. There is a synthetic element (nobelium) named after him.
In 1895, Alfred Nobel signed his last will and testament, giving his fortune –$215 million as of 2018– to a series of prizes for those who achieve something extraordinary (for the benefit of mankind) in the field of chemistry, physics, medicine, literature, and peace.
In 1968, Sweden’s central bank Sveriges Riksbank established the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel.
Between 1901 and 2018, a total of 590 Nobel Prizes have been awarded to 908 Laureates and 27 organizations. A few scientists and organizations have been honored more than once.
The winner receives a gold medal, a diploma, and a sum of money decided by the Nobel Foundation. The average age of Nobel Prize winners [across all categories] is 59. Below is a detailed list of the youngest Nobel laureates who received the award at the ceremony.
12. Joshua Lederberg
Prize share: 1/2
Category / Year: Nobel Prize in Medicine 1958
Won for: discovering that bacteria can mate and exchange genes
Joshua Lederberg was an American molecular biologist who discovered the mechanisms of genetic recombination in bacteria. He began experimenting with cell biology in the early 1940s.
It was long considered that bacteria could only reproduce by splitting themselves into two. However, in 1946, Lederberg, with his colleague, showed that genes in bacteria could also change in a similar manner to that of sexual reproduction observed in complex organisms.
Two bacteria can exchange genetic material with each other by passing some segments of DNA across a bridge-like connection. He also proved a phenomenon called transduction, in which bacterial genes could be transferred from one bacterium to another via a virus named bacteriophage.
He is also known for his work in artificial intelligence and the US space program, including seeking life on Mars.
It was Lederberg who warned about extraterrestrial microbes that may enter into Earth’s atmosphere on board the Sputnik spacecraft in 1957. He suggested both spacecraft and spacemen should be quarantined on return and scanned for such microbes.
11. Brian Josephson
A photo captured in 1973, showing Brian Josephson after learning he had won the Nobel Prize | via Getty images
Prize share: 1/2
Category / Year: Nobel Prize in Physics 1973
Won for: predicting the properties of a supercurrent through a tunnel barrier
Brian Josephson is best known for his pioneering work on quantum tunneling and superconductivity. He was 22 years old when he did the work on a quantum mechanical phenomenon that won him Nobel Prize.
Quantum physics describes matter as both particles and waves. In quantum tunneling, a subatomic particle passes through a potential barrier, and this phenomenon cannot be predicted by the laws of classical mechanics.
In 1962, Josephson came up with a new phenomenon of supercurrent, in which he predicted some unexpected results with superconductors. Superconductors are materials that lack electrical resistance at low temperatures.
He found that without superimposed voltage, the current can pass through two superconductors separated by a thin insulator. If a rectified voltage is added, an alternating current can result.
10. Tawakkol Karman
Prize share: 1/3
Category / Year: Nobel Peace Prize 2011
Won for: her participation in peace-building work and non-violent struggle for women’s right
In 2011, Tawakkol Karman became the first Yemeni and the first Arab woman to win a Nobel Prize. She is a Yemeni politician, journalist, and human rights activist.
Karman received numerous murder threats on many occasions because of her involvement in demonstrations and actions critical of the Yemeni regime. She promoted the struggle for human rights and democracy in Yemen (where democratic rights are restricted) at the international level.
In 2005, she co-founded the group Women Journalists Without Chains to promote basic rights and freedom of expression. In 2007, she began staging weekly sit-ins in Sana’a to demand various democratic reforms. She continued the practice for nearly three years, during which she got arrested several times for her activism.
Karman was involved in numerous protests (in 2011) against ruling regimes, which took place in several Arab countries. She was reportedly called ‘mother of the revolution’ and ‘the iron woman’ by some Yemenis.
“You have to be strong; you have to trust yourself that you can build a new country. You have to know that you have the ability to achieve your dream.” — Tawakkol Karman
9. Mairead Corrigan
A vintage photo of Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan (right) | Getty Images
Prize share: 1/2
Category / Year: Nobel Peace Prize 1976
Won for: her work as a co-founder of Community of Peace People
Mairead Corrigan Maguire is a co-founder of the Women for Peace, which later become the Community for Peace People – an organization that encourages a peaceful resolution of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
She was raised in a poor family in Belfast. While doing the office job, she devoted a lot of time in her youth to charity work in the Legion of Mary, a Catholic organization.
In a brutal shooting incident (which happened in 1976), her sister lost three children. A witness contacted Mairead, and they both agreed to create a peace organization to bring an end to the nasty conflict between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland.
She gathered thousands of people in protest marches and didn’t give up hope even when the people from the community lost all their support in the late 1970s. She continued her local peace work in all difficult scenarios.
8. Frederick Banting
Image credit: University of Toronto
Prize share: 1/2
Category / Year: Nobel Prize in Medicine 1923
Won for: discovering insulin
The Canadian medical scientist Frederick Banting is the youngest Nobel laureate in the field of Physiology/Medicine. He received Nobel Prize for discovering insulin and its therapeutic potential. In the same year (1923), the government of Canada granted him a lifetime annuity to continue his work.
Insulin is a hormone made by the pancreas. It enables glucose (obtained from food) to get into the cells. However, sometimes the human body doesn’t generate enough insulin or doesn’t use it well, preventing glucose from reaching cells and staying in blood. This results in too much glucose in the blood.
By 1920, scientists had already realized that diabetes is caused by the lack of insulin, but they couldn’t prove it. Banting anticipated that another substance (trypsin) formed in the pancreas breaks down insulin.
In 1921, Banting, along with his colleague, treated dogs so that they no longer generated trypsin. Insulin could then be extracted and used to manage diabetes levels.
7. Rudolf Mössbauer
Rudolf Mössbauer / archive picture from 1961
Prize share: 1/2
Category / Year: Nobel Prize in Physics 1961
Won for: discovering recoilless nuclear resonance fluorescence
Rudolf Mössbauer conducted a series of investigations in the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research in Heidelberg from 1955 to 1957. This is where he performed his first experimental observation of the phenomenon of recoilless nuclear resonance absorption.
As per quantum physics, the nucleus and electrons in an atom can have only fixed energy levels. When transitions take place, gamma rays are either absorbed or emitted. In a gas, a recoil effect occurs every time an atom emits a photon.
Mössbauer found that it is possible to eliminate this recoil by embedding atoms in a crystal structure. This opened up new avenues to study energy levels in atomic nuclei and analyze how they are affected by their surroundings and different phenomena.
His work in this field has also been rewarded by the Prize of the Research Corporation New York (1960) and Elliott Cresson Medal (1961). He spent his last decade working on problems of solid-state physics and nuclear physics.
6. Tsung-Dao Lee
Chen Ning Yang and Tsung-Dao Lee (right) Won Nobel Prize In Physics 1957 | Credit: Science Photo Library
Prize share: 1/2
Category / Year: Nobel Prize in Physics 1957
Won for: showing the violation of the parity law in weak interactions
Tsung-Dao Lee is known for his work on parity violation, relativistic heavy ion physics, and the Lee Model. He is the youngest American ever to have won a Nobel Prize.
For a long time, scientists assumed that all physical systems are related to the symmetry of the wave function, in which left and right were reversed, and the matter was replaced by antimatter. If the mirror image is identical to the original system after a parity transformation, the system is said to have even parity; otherwise, its parity is odd.
In 1956, Lee came up with a theory that showed the left-right symmetry law is violated by the weak interaction. To confirm this theory, he performed an experiment with his colleague, which involved measuring the motion of electrons during the decay of a cobalt isotope.
Lee has published more than 300 research papers and numerous books. He has also received the Albert Einstein Award (1957) and Matteucci Medal (1995).
5. Carl Anderson
Prize share: 1/2
Category / Year: Nobel Prize in Physics 1936
Won for: discovering positron, the antimatter counterpart of the electron
Carl Anderson earned his Ph.D. degree by studying the spatial distribution of photoelectrons ejected from different gases using X-rays.
In 1930, Anderson began exploring cosmic rays during the course of which he encountered a strange particle: it was a particle with the same mass as the electron but with an opposite electrical charge. In 1932, it was confirmed that the particle was positron.
Anderson analyzed the energy distribution of cosmic-ray particles and the energy loss of high-speed electrons in traversing materials. Later, he created more conclusive evidence of the existence of the positron by shooting gamma rays (generated by the natural radioactive nuclide ThC) into other materials, which resulted in the formation of positron-electron pairs.
He then continued his research on radiation and fundamental particles. Most of his discoveries and studies have been published in ‘The Physical Review and Science.’
4. Paul Dirac
Prize share: 1/2
Category / Year: Nobel Prize in Physics 1933
Won for: discovering new productive forms of atomic theory
Most of Paul Dirac’s works revolve around mathematical and theoretical aspects of quantum mechanics.
Along with making fundamental contributions to the early development of quantum electrodynamics, he derived a relativistic wave equation known as the Dirac equation to describe the behavior of fermions and imply the existence of antimatter.
The Dirac equation introduced special relativity into Schrödinger’s equation. His work is considered as a fruitful reconciliation between quantum mechanics and Einstein’s theory of general relativity.
Apart from the Nobel Prize, Dirac won the Royal Medal (1939), the Copley Medal (1952), the Max Planck Medal (1952), and J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Prize (1969).
3. Werner Heisenberg
Prize share: 1/1
Category / Year: Nobel Prize in Physics 1932
Won for: creating quantum mechanics
Werner Heisenberg was one of the key pioneers of quantum mechanics. He is best known for the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which states that the exact location and velocity of an object cannot be measured at the same time, even in theory.
According to Niels Bohr’s model of the atom, electrons emit and absorb radiation of a particular wavelength when they jump from one orbit to another around the nucleus. The model explains the hydrogen atom, but it doesn’t fit very well in complicated atoms and molecules.
Heisenberg came up with a new type of model called quantum mechanics to describe the energy levels of atoms and subatomic particles. He set limits (uncertainty relation) for how precisely the location and velocity of a particle can be concurrently measured.
2. Lawrence Bragg
Prize share: 1/2
Category / Year: Nobel Prize in Physics 1915
Won for: analyzing crystal structure by means of X-rays
Lawrence Bragg carried out his Nobel Prize-awarded work at the age of 23. Two years later, he became the youngest person to receive the Nobel Prize in 1915 and retained the title for the next 99 years. Bragg is also the youngest Nobel Laureate in physics to date.
A German physicist Max von Laue discovered that diffraction occurs when X-rays pass through the crystal. Lawrence Bragg and his father (who was a professor) decided to further investigate the matter.
They established the relationship between the X-ray wavelength, its incident angle, and the distance between the atomic layers inside the crystal. This relationship could be used to examine the structure of a crystal. The study made it possible to measure the locations of atoms in crystalline structures.
1. Malala Yousafzai
Prize share: 1/2
Category / Year: Nobel Peace Prize 2014
Won for: human rights advocacy, especially for girls’ right to education
In 2014, Malala Yousafzai became the youngest person to win the Nobel prize at the age of 17. She was born in Pakistan, and her family came to run a few schools in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
At a very young age, she fought against the suppression of children and young people in her native area, where the local Taliban had banned girls from attending school.
In 2009, she wrote a blog for BBC Urdu, describing her experiences during the Taliban’s growing influence in the district. A few years later, she was assassinated on the bus home from school.
Malala survived the attack but underwent multiple operations in the United Kingdom, where she lives now. Following her recovery, she became a prominent activist for girls’ right to education.
Apart from Nobel Peace Prize, Malala received Pakistan’s first National Youth Peace Prize (2012) and the Sakharov Prize (2013). Time Magazine featured her as one of the most influential people in the world for three consecutive years (2013 – 2015).
Frequently Asked Questions
Who was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize?
Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in 1903. In fact, she is the only woman to win the Nobel Prize twice, and the only person to win the Noble Prize in two different fields.
In 1903, Marie Curie and her husband Pierre Curie were awarded half of the Nobel Prize for Physics for their pioneering work on the spontaneous radiation discovered by the physicists Henri Becquerel, who was awarded the other half of the Prize.
In 1911, Curie won the second Nobel Prize, this time in Chemistry, for her research in radioactivity. She discovered elements radium and polonium, using methods she developed for isolating radioactive isotopes.
Why did Brack Obama get the nobel peace prize?
Brack Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 for strengthening international diplomacy and cooperation between people. The Norwegian Nobel Committee attached special importance to Obama’s promotion of nuclear nonproliferation. His vision of a world free from nuclear weapons has stimulated disarmament and arms control negotiations.
Did Albert Einstein win a Nobel Prize?
Yes, Albert Einstein received a Nobel Prize in Physics for discovering the law of the photoelectric effect and for his extraordinary works in Theoretical Physics. His 1905 paper on the photoelectric effect is considered a pivotal step in the development of quantum theory.
Who is the youngest Nobel Prize winner in literature?
Rudyard Kipling is the youngest recipient of Nobel Prize in Literature. He won the Nobel Prize at the age of 41 (in 1907) for his power of observation, originality of imagination, virility of ideas, and extraordinary talent for narration.
He is known for his famous fiction stories, such as The Jungle Book (1894) and The Man Who Would Be King (1888), and poems such as Gunga Din (1890) and Mandalay (1890).
Has anyone refused the Nobel Prize?
Yes, two winners have declined the Nobel Prize.
In 1964, Jean-Paul Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. He refused to accept the prize because he had always declined all official honours. He believed that “a writer should not allow himself to be turned into an institution.
In 1973, Le Duc Tho was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize jointly with US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for their effort in negotiating the Vietnam Peace Accords. However, Tho declined to accept the award because that peace had not yet been established.