War and disaster inspire record number of Nobel nominations

If you believe the bookmakers, this morning's winner, who will receive a gold medal and 10m Swedish kronor (£730,000) in Stockholm on 10 December, could be a rock star (Bob Geldof or Bono), the Salvation Army, the former Finnish president and Aceh peace broker Martti Ahtisaari, or the US nuclear disarmament campaigners Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar.

The truth is that predicting the winner of today's prize is about as dicey as proclaiming peace. The six Nobel Prizes - medicine, chemistry, physics, peace, economics and literature - are a masterstroke of Nordic detachment in a world of big egos, lobbying and potential corruption.

"The system we use is well thought out," said the physicist Anders Bárány, who is deputy director of the Nobel Museum in Stockholm. "Leaks happen but they are mostly inaccurate. I would say it is impossible for an institution, a company or a group of people to push through a given candidate."

Mr Bárány, whose Austrian grandfather won the physics prize in 1915, experienced the process from the inside as secretary of the Nobel physics committee for 15 years until 2003.

"Alfred Nobel created the prize because he felt so guilty about having invented dynamite. He died in 1896 but he was rather vague about his wishes and it took until 1900 for the Swedish and Norwegian parliaments (the two countries were then in union) to agree on the terms of the prize and bring it into being in 1901," he explained.

"The basic rulebook for the committees - five of which are in Stockholm (physics, medicine, chemistry, economics, literature) and one of which is in Oslo (peace) - has hardly changed. In the autumn, each committee sends out 3,000 letters inviting nominations for the following year. The letters are sent to former prize-winners and major universities and institutions all over the world.

Nominees are sifted by the Nobel committees and shortlists are submitted to a body of elders who make the final choice. The exception is the peace prize. The Oslo committee, which is appointed by the Norwegian parliament, is not required to submit its proposed winner for approval to an outside body. The committee's decision is the final decision.

As a result, even though the Peace Prize has often sparked outside controversy - for instance when it was awarded to Henry Kissinger, Yasser Arafat and Menachem Begin - it is the most consensual of the six Nobel awards.

The main contenders

* BONO AND BOB GELDOF: Both have campaigned to eradicate world poverty and have put pressure on world leaders to cancel the debts of Africa's poorest countries.

* MARTTI AHTISAARI: The former Finnish president has a distinguished record of participation in peace initiatives. He brokered talks between Jakarta and rebels in Aceh.

* RICHARD LUGAR AND SAM NUNN: Anti-nuclear campaigners feature prominently among names being tipped as winners thanks to the 60th anniversary of Hiroshima.

* MOHAMED ELBARADEI: The director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency is known for his skills in tackling nuclear issues within Iraq, Iran and North Korea.

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