Einstein's failure to win a Nobel until 1921, and that prize's not being awarded for his work on relativity, is generally ascribed to these factors:

  1. Lack of sufficient experimental proof for the theories at the time (some distrust in the early results on the precession of Mercury, and the Eddington starlight observations).
  2. Failure by some members of the committee to understand relativity
  3. anti-Semitism
  4. skepticism generally about the utility of relativity, and whether it was physics at all.

If these factors were in fact the reason that the relativity work did not garner a prize in 1921, why didn't the relativity work merit a second Nobel prize after, say 1945? Surely the work on cyclotrons and the bomb provided firm experimental support for the validity of the theory, and by then the overall utility would have been understood as well.

(For that matter it's interesting to speculate how many Nobel Prizes Einstein should have won; but this question just asks: why only one?)


The time when experimental evidence supporting relativity began to appear coincided with the rise of antisemitism in Germany following Germany's defeat in 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. The arguments raged for another year until a compromise was reached.

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.

Thus, after considerable hand-wringing and even deferring the prize for a year, in 1922 the Swedish Academy made the decision to award Einstein the 1921 prize a year late, writing to Einstein on the 10th of November 1922 :

... the Royal Academy of Sciences has decided to award you last year's Nobel Prize for physics, in consideration of your work in theoretical physics and in particular your discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect, but without taking into account the value which will be accorded your relativity and gravitation theories after these are confirmed in the future.

(Source : Mass and Energy in Relativity Theory, by Lev Borisovi.)

At this stage relativity was open to future consideration. However, Einstein chose not to attend the ceremony to receive the award in person. This decision may have made a future prize for relativity more difficult, if not impossible, since it gave the impression that Einstein did not value the award.

Having said that, at the time Einstein received confirmation of the award from the Nobel committee, he was committed to a lecture tour of Japan.

German foreign minister Walther Rathenau had been murdered by anti-Semites. In the subsequent investigation, the police had found Einstein's name on a list of targets. In the face of such a death threat, leaving Germany to spend months in the Far East, rather than a few days in Stockholm, must have seemed prudent.

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for the interesting information. It would be disappointing if the Nobel committee really tried to retaliate against Einstein for thirty years because of scheduling issues around his first prize. Particularly since the succeeding three decades would have made it clear to them that the relativity work should have been recognized, and that in fact they treated him inappropriately prior to 1920. $\endgroup$ – kdog Jun 3 '17 at 17:17
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    $\begingroup$ @kdog Yes. The whole episode is most unfortunate and a lasting blot on the history of the prize. $\endgroup$ – Nick R Jun 3 '17 at 17:28
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    $\begingroup$ The Isaacson biography has a detailed account of the negotiations around the 1921 prize. Is there really no source that can shed a more definitive light on the question of what happened in, say 1950? The hypothesis that animus to Einstein surrounding the 1922 scheduling issues is possible, but one would need more information to confirm that. Would such animosity really last for 30 years, for instance? And if the committee really had such long memories, wouldn't there have been a countervailing impulse to correct the earlier behavior by the committee? $\endgroup$ – kdog Jun 3 '17 at 18:41
  • $\begingroup$ Nobel clearly closed out any discrimination in his last will: "It is my express wish that when awarding the prizes, no consideration be given to nationality, but that the prize be awarded to the worthiest person, whether or not they are Scandinavian." At the time, liking or disliking a nation was not viewed so extremely as today, but contradicting someone's last will, that was much more. Jews were considered a nation at the time and not as a religion. $\endgroup$ – peterh May 30 at 18:08

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