It seems Einstein's most original contribution to physics was General Relativity Theory, as Lorentz and Poincaré already laid the foundations of Special Relativity. So, why didn't his 1921 Nobel Prize mention Special or General Relativity Theory at all?

Instead, his prize motivation said:

for his services to Theoretical Physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect

"Especially?" Einstein didn't make greater "services to Theoretical Physics" than "the law of the photoelectric effect"? (This was late: 1921, not pre-1918.)

Also, two years later Millikan's Nobel Prize was awarded "for his work on the elementary charge of electricity and on the photoelectric effect". Did the Nobel Committee just have a liking for the photoelectric effect?

  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Einstein's explanation of the photoelectric effect marked the birth of quantum mechanics. That was arguably more important than relativity. And in 1921, there was very little experimental evidence in favor of special relativity. Ives-Stilwell was 1938, for example. Results from Michelson-Morley were not set in stone as described in many oversimplified historical accounts. People kept doing Michelson-Morley-style experiments for decades, in an attempt to get the "right" result. $\endgroup$
    – user466
    Commented May 28, 2016 at 2:20
  • $\begingroup$ I once read that Lorentz was of the opinion that only Poincaré and Einstein together should earn a Nobel price for special relativity theory. And because Poincaré already died it would have been very ill-mannered or even impertinent to reward Einstein alone. In those days morals mattered enormously, esp. for a man like Lorentz. $\endgroup$
    – Gerard
    Commented Sep 12, 2017 at 18:21
  • $\begingroup$ SR & GR were still too controversial. We don't see that know given just how broadly they are accepted now. Whereas the photoelectric effect was measurable, verifiable and the Einsteins explanation marked a new departure point. Planck had theorised quanta as an adhoc measure - he didn't really believe in them - whereas Einstein ran with it. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 27, 2018 at 3:03

5 Answers 5


It is often said that the reason why Einstein's Nobel Prize didn't mention Relativity Theory is the lack of sufficient evidence to the theory of relativity by 1922. But actually, by 1922, the special theory of relativity had been tested for almost all its major and pivotal predictions. The general theory of relativity had passed many highly significant tests with extreme precision. Like the deflection of light rays or the precession of the perihelion of the Mercury. It should be noted that although the precession of the perihelion of the Mercury was known before the formulation of the theory, GR was not an ad hoc explanation for the same--and thus, the fact of precession should be regarded as a verified prediction of GR. So, the absence of the mention of the Relativity Theory remains a curious question.

Many believe that the actual reason has something to do with the views of Bergson, one of the most prominent philosophers of the 20th century, who was also more famous for his brilliance than Einstein was at the time, on Einstein's theory of relativity. Bergson considered Einstein's theory to be metaphysical and had declared his problem with the theory publicly. The writer of an account of the famous debate between Einstein and Bergson, Canales, has noted:

When the Nobel Prize was awarded to Einstein a few months later, it was not given for the theory that had made the physicist famous: relativity. Instead, it was given “for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect” — an area of science that hardly jolted the public’s imagination to the degree that relativity did. The reasons behind the decision to focus on this work other than relativity were directly traced to what Bergson said that day in Paris.

The president of the Nobel Committee explained that although “most discussion centers on his theory of relativity,” it did not merit the prize. Why not? The reasons were surely varied and complex, but the culprit mentioned that evening was clear: “It will be no secret that the famous philosopher Bergson in Paris has challenged this theory.” Bergson had shown that relativity “pertains to epistemology” rather than to physics — and so it “has therefore been the subject of lively debate in philosophical circles."


I haven't read Walter Isaacson's biography of Einstein but the NatGeo show "Genius" which is based on the same indicates that Phillip Lennard had a major influence on the Nobel committee which he used to persuade them against Einstein. This seems plausible and it also explains why Einstein was given Nobel for the explanation of the photoelectric effect. Because Lennard's experiments were crucial in our experimental understanding of the phenomenon and thus, when the Nobel committee decided to give the Nobel to Einstein anyway, they tried to placate Lennard to some extent by giving it Einstein not for relativity but for the photoelectric effect.

  • $\begingroup$ I never knew Bergson influenced the Nobel committee. I did know Bergson had a lot of clout in European philosophy in his era. $\endgroup$
    – Geremia
    Commented Jun 22, 2016 at 14:00
  • $\begingroup$ I have some comments on the Swedish Nobel Comittee and their struggle with relativity, in Researchgate: "The principle of physicalism applied to a few example areas" $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 23, 2022 at 20:26

It seems that:

The rules for the Nobel Prize in Physics require that the significance of achievements being recognized has been "tested by time". In practice it means that the lag between the discovery and the award is typically on the order of 20 years and can be much longer.

If we browse the list of Nobel laureates in Physics, we can "inductively" conclude that the prize is awarded mainly for "experimental" discoveries: new effects or devices, and hardly for pure theories.

  • $\begingroup$ the prize is awarded mainly for "experimental" discoveries: new effects or devices, and hardly for pure theories Einstein was a theorist, and he was awarded the prize for his theoretical work, so this doesn't make a lot of sense in this context. $\endgroup$
    – user466
    Commented May 29, 2016 at 1:12
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @BenCrowell Actually, I think that the photoelectric effect is both experimental as well as theoretical. I remember a long time ago having a four or five hour discussion with beer and ribs at the physics department picnic where this very question was discussed heavily. The experimental work was not done by Einstein, he merely explained the results but many of the physics professors argued that it was as if Einstein were part of the experimental team writing the final report on the matter. $\endgroup$
    – K7PEH
    Commented Jun 23, 2016 at 16:11

@ Geremia, you should really abstain from citing a well-known anti-semite Bjerknes when trying to be objective about Einstein.

And no, Special Relativity doesn't "belong" to Poincare and Lorentz but to Einstein. (And it's ludicrous to talk about SR without acknowledging Fitzgerald and Maxwell). Your argument is tantamount to crediting Newton with the full invention of calculus when the heavy lifting had already been done by Descartes and Fermat on analytical geometry - a curiousa that explains how Leibniz was able to derive calculus almost simultaneously with the great Sir Isaac. In fact, the Bernoullis - and even Lagrange - always acknowledged calculus as the birth child of Fermat. So if we aren't going to split hairs on an issue such as that, then why not simply give Einstein his due for Special Relativity (which in a real epistemic sense is different than both Lorentz and Poincare's conceptions of 'relativity'). In theory, Einstein didn't actually need his scientific predecessors to create SR given that the Lorentz transformations naturally arise out of Maxwell's equations. If we're being super picky, then let's give Lorentz, Poincare, Fitzgerald, and Maxwell 50% of the credit, and Einstein the other 50%. But why stop there? Give Laplace 30% of the credit for celestial mechanics. Max Born should get 40% of the credit for Matrix Mechanics too. Robert Hooke should get 50% of the credit for coming up with the inverse square law which Newton subsequently stole and then mathematized. (I hope you get my point - you run into a fair bit of troubling when delineating attributions of scientific discoveries).

At any rate, regarding your question, there are a few reasons.

  1. The nobel committee didn't fully understand General Relativity nor was there an immediate realization of how important GR was to the modelling of the universe until Wheeler and company advocated for it later in the century.

  2. The nobel committee didn't fully realize the universality of SR until Dirac.

  3. Einstein really didn't care for the Nobel prize and the Nobel committee took offense. On the week he was about to be awarded the prize, he received a message suggesting he stay around "for something big in Stockholm" (wink, wink, hint, hint). However, he had already planned a trip to Japan that week and didn't care enough about the Nobel to delay his trip (the Nobel committee certainly took offense). Not only did he skip his own Nobel ceremony, but he didn't even WRITE his reception of the award in his journal the day he received it. Later quotes by journalists asking why he never received more than one Nobel mirror his general indiffernce to the award. His only use of the Nobel prize was to complete a promise to his then ex-wife Mileva Maric that, in exchange for a divorce, he would give her the Nobel Prize money once he inevitably got it for one of the many brilliant things he did.

  4. Much of Einstein's work was so revolutionary that there was a sense in which the committee members believed them to be too speculative. Plus, the committee has generally prejudiced experimentalists over theorists - but even that isn't enough to account for why they've given out multiple nobels to other scientists whose work were nowhere near as fundamental as Einstein's.

There's a great argument made by a plethora of science historians than Einstein deserved anywhere from 4 to 12 Nobel Prizes (klien wrote a great article on this a few years back). Stone: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/a-douglas-ston/einstein-fantasy-physics_b_4948045.html

Count the amount of Nobels given for Brownian Motion. Bose-Einstein Condensates. Special Relativity. General Relativity. His 1909 and, later, his 1917 Paper on the Spontaneous and Stimulated Emission, and many others. Heck, even the EPR paper would be worthy contender.

  • $\begingroup$ "Special Relativity doesn't 'belong' to Poincare and Lorentz but to Einstein" Perhaps you could answer my question: "What did Einstein contribute to Special Relativity that hadn't already been done by Lorentz in 1904 and Poincaré in 1905?" $\endgroup$
    – Geremia
    Commented Jun 22, 2016 at 14:53
  • $\begingroup$ That question has already been answered by so many others that it seems redundant to answer it again. I will, however, answer it. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 5, 2016 at 22:37
  • $\begingroup$ Number 3 would seem like a reason not to give him the prize at all, rather than a reason to give it to him for one thing rather than another. And it doesn't really make sense to say that Einstein's disrespect influenced the committee, since according to your account, his disrespect seems to have come after they had already made their decision. The nobel committee didn't fully realize the universality of SR until Dirac. Interesting. Do you have a source for this? It's hard to imagine how one could read the 1905 paper on SR and not see it as a proposed universal theory of time and space. $\endgroup$
    – user466
    Commented Sep 28, 2018 at 21:34

Some good history is to be found in Pais A., How Einstein Got the Nobel Prize: Why did the Nobel Committee for Physics wait so long before giving Einstein the Prize, and why did they not award it for relativity?. American Scientist 70.4 (1982): 358-365. Isaacson’s book (p.311 ff.) adds some further details. But Canales theory about Bergson is mostly a recent journalistic invention.

In the years before WWI SR was also known as Lorentz-Einstein theory and people were aware of Poincare’s earlier work. Awarding the prize to the three has not really been an option as Lorentz has already got the 1902 Nobel and Poincare died in 1912. Around 1910 Lorentz emphasized that most of Einstein’s interpretations are ‘epistemological’ (erkenntnistheoretish) and not strictly physical. His view was authoritative and well known. However since Einstein’s name appeared on newspapers frontpages in 1919 there was pressure and recommendations to award him the prize. The decision to give it to him was taken without taking account of report submitted to the Nobel Committee Actually, it was written by … an opthalmologue (a Nobel in medicine) who somehow did not like Relativity. Svante Arrhenius, who had opposed Einstein’s winning, knew Lorentz’s judgment but most probably knew from second hand that Bergson view was more or less similar. During the announcement he chose to mention Bergson, with the remark that discussions of relativity pertain to epistemology.

(Canales imagines some kind of personal inimity and writes “Historians have often puzzled why Lorentz, Poincare, and Michelson—the three men whose research was closest to Einstein’s—failed to embrace the theory of relativity wholeheartedly. The role of Bergson as an individual, colleague, mentor, friend, and confidant—in addition to the general role and impact of his philosophy—was key” p88. But Bergson became interested in Relativity after 1911 and his views appeared in print (in French) barely a mont before the Nobel Committee decision).


Taken literally, the answer is that it actually does, i.e. the handcrafted diploma given to Einstein mentions the theory general of relativity in a bizarre caveat: …independent of the value that (after eventual confirmation) may be credited to the relativity and gravitation theory.”

This can be interpreted in different ways. One is that the committee points out that the theory (or perhaps theories – both the special and general versions of relativity) was a possibility for a future prize. However, according to the “Nobel prize official web site”, there are 62 nominations up to and including 1922, not a single one after.


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