The Nobel: Coveted, Controversial, Covert

Think of it as the original Big Bang Theory.

The man who invented dynamite and hoped its destructive force would make war unthinkable - then left all his money to a fund to award yearly prizes for work in the sciences, literature and, most of all, for peace.

The prizes named for Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor who died in 1896, are worth about $1.5 million each and have become the most coveted and prestigious in the world, CBS News correspondent Mark Phillips reports.

And sometimes the most controversial.

The list of recipients may be a who's who of history. And who could criticize the choice of a Mother Teresa, or Nelson Mandela, or Martin Luther King.

But Henry Kissinger's award for negotiating the end of the Vietnam War was questioned by those who blamed him for waging it.

And Le Duc Tho, his Vietnamese counterpart, refused to accept his joint award because of the destruction of his country the war had caused.

Sometimes the award was spectacularly premature. Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat received the 1994 prize for agreeing to a peace that has yet to happen.

The science awards can be uneven as well. Albert Einstein may have won in 1921 for inventing modern nuclear physics.

But this year's award is to the people who perfected the little disk that runs an iPod ... a lesser scientific achievement perhaps.

How does that happen? It's a secret. The Swedish Academy, which invites nominations and bestows the awards, won't say how they do it or even who they're considering.

"Albert Fair and Peter Grunberg won the physics prize, but we don't know who else was in the running," said Adam Smith, the Web site manager of the Nobel Committee. "We just know that they won. And it will be 50 years before we are able to look back into the archive and find out who actually was nominated for this year's prize."

The Nobel archives are full of surprises. Six father-and-son teams have won. Four husband-and-wife teams, including Pierre and Marie Curie, who won twice for her work with the radiation that ultimately killed her.

Linus Pauling is the only person to have won the award on his own twice. Once for chemistry, once for peace - convincing the nuclear powers to sign a test-ban treaty.

The Nobel Prize workings may be a mystery, but the rules are clear. No campaigning. Al Gore is rumored to be a hot tip for this year's peace prize for his environmental work.

The worst thing he could do is say he wants it.

  • Mark Phillips

    Mark Phillips is CBS News senior foreign correspondent, based in London.