The Nobel Prizes are prizes instituted by the will of Alfred Bernhard Nobel. They are awarded to people, and some organizations, which have done outstanding research, invented groundbreaking techniques or equipment, or made outstanding contributions to society. The Nobel Prizes, which are generally awarded annually in the categories of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, peace, and economics, are widely regarded as the supreme commendation in the world. Unfortunately, those who select and those who receive the prizes do not always live up to the standard envisioned by Nobel. Nevertheless, the incentive to benefit humankind inspires many recipients to strive to fulfill their potential, offering their best work for the sake of all.
Between 1901 and 2010, the Nobel Prizes and the Prize in Economic Sciences were awarded 543 times. These include 817 Laureates and 23 organizations (since some individuals and organizations have been honored more than once, a total of 813 different individuals and 20 unique organizations have received awards). A prize may be given to two works if they are both considered worthy of the prize. Also, a prize may be awarded jointly to two or three persons who collaborated on the work that is being rewarded. A few prize winners have declined the award. The prize cannot be revoked and nominees must be living at the time of their nomination. Since 1974, the award cannot be given out posthumously.
There are years in which one or more prizes are not awarded, usually because no work was found to be of the required standard stipulated by Alfred Nobel. However, the prizes must be awarded at least once every five years. During World War II, no prizes were awarded in any category from 1940 through 1942. The selection of the peace prize in particular was greatly hampered by Nazi Germany's occupation of Norway.
The prizes were instituted by the final will of Alfred Nobel, a Swedish chemist, industrialist, and the inventor of dynamite. Alfred Nobel wrote several wills during his lifetime, the last one written on November 27, 1895, more than a year before he died. He signed it at the Swedish-Norwegian Club in Paris on November 27, 1895. Nobel's work had directly involved the creation of explosives, and he became increasingly uneasy with the military usage of his inventions. It is said that his will was motivated in part by his reading of a premature obituary of himself, published in error by a French newspaper on the occasion of the death of Nobel's brother Ludvig, which condemned Alfred as a "merchant of death." After his death, Alfred left 94 percent of his worth to the establishment of five prizes:
The whole of my remaining realizable estate shall be dealt with in the following way:
The capital shall be invested by my executors in safe securities and shall constitute a fund, the interest on which shall be annually distributed in the form of prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind. The said interest shall be divided into five equal parts, which shall be apportioned as follows: one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery or invention within the field of physics; one part to the person who shall have made the most important chemical discovery or improvement; one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine; one part to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work of an idealistic tendency; and one part to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity among nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.
The prizes for physics and chemistry shall be awarded by the Swedish Academy of Sciences; that for physiological or medical works by the Caroline Institute in Stockholm; that for literature by the Academy in Stockholm; and that for champions of peace by a committee of five persons to be elected by the Norwegian Storting. It is my express wish that in awarding the prizes no consideration whatever shall be given to the nationality of the candidates, so that the most worthy shall receive the prize, whether he be a Scandinavian or not.
Although Nobel's will established the prizes, his plan was incomplete and took five years before the Nobel Foundation could be established and the first prizes were awarded on December 10, 1901.
Alfred Nobel's will made provision for only five prizes; the economics prize was added later in his memory. The six prizes awarded are:
- Nobel Prize in Physics – Awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
- Nobel Prize in Chemistry – Awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
- Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine – Awarded by the Karolinska Institute
- Nobel Prize in Literature – Awarded by the Swedish Academy
- Nobel Prize in Peace – Awarded by the Norwegian Nobel Committee
- Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics – Also known as the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, it was instituted in 1969 by Sveriges Riksbank, the Bank of Sweden. Although it is awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences with the official Nobel prizes, it is not paid for by his money, and is technically not a Nobel Prize.
Nomination and Selection
As compared with other prizes, the Nobel Prize nomination and selection process is long and rigorous. This is an important reason why the prizes have grown in importance and prestige over the years to become the most important prizes in their field.
Forms, which amount to a personal and exclusive invitation, are sent to about 3,000 selected individuals to invite them to submit nominations for noteworthy candidates. The strictly enforced submission deadline for nominations is January 31. Self-nominations are automatically disqualified and only living persons are eligible for the Nobel Prize. Unlike many other awards, the Nobel Prize nominees are never publicly announced, and they are not supposed to be told that they were ever considered for the prize. These records are sealed for 50 years.
After the nomination deadline, a committee compiles and reduces the number of nominations to a list of 200 preliminary candidates. The list is sent to selected experts in the field of each nominee's work and the list is further shortened to around 15 final candidates. The committee then writes a report with recommendations and sends it to the academy or other corresponding institution, depending on the category of the prize. As an example of institute size, the Assembly for the Prize for Medicine has 50 members. The members of the institution then vote to select the winner.
Posthumous nominations for the Prize have been disallowed since 1974. This has sometimes sparked criticism that people deserving of a Nobel Prize did not receive the award because they died before being nominated. In two cases, the prize has been awarded posthumously to people who were nominated when they were still alive. This was the case with UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld (1961 Peace Prize) and Erik Axel Karlfeldt (1931 Prize in Literature); both of whom were awarded the prize in the years they died.
The committees and institutions that serve as selection boards for the prizes typically announce the names of the laureates in October. The prizes are awarded at formal ceremonies held annually on December 10, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel's death.
Each prize can be given to a maximum of three recipients per year. The prizes constitute a gold medal, a diploma, and a sum of money. The monetary award is currently about 10 million Swedish Kronor, which is slightly more than one million Euros or about $1.3 million dollars. This was originally intended to allow laureates to continue working or researching without the pressures of raising money. In actual fact, many prize winners have retired before winning. If there are two winners in one category, the award money is split equally between them. If there are three winners, the awarding committee has the option of splitting the prize money equally among all three, or awarding half of the prize money to one recipient and one-quarter to each of the other recipients. It is common for the winners to donate the prize money to benefit scientific, cultural, or humanitarian causes.
Nobel Prize in Physics
The Nobel Prize in Physics is awarded annually to the person (or persons) who is recognized as having made the most impact, be it discovery or invention, to the field of physics. It is bestowed by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
In 1903, husband and wife Pierre and Marie Curie were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their influential research regarding radiation, a phenomena originally discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel. In 1911, Curie received her second Nobel Prize in Physics for isolating radium. She is one of only two women ever to have received the award.
The 1915 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to the first-ever father-son team recognizing Sir William Henry Bragg and his son, Sir William Lawrence Bragg, for their analyses of crystal structure through means of x-rays. As of 2006, Sir William Lawrence Bragg remains as the youngest award winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics, receiving the award at age 25.
In 1921, Albert Einstein received the Nobel Prize in Physics for his explanation of the 1905 photoelectric effect. When receiving this award, Einstein was also commended "for his services to Theoretical Physics,” which is believed to have incorporated the often counter-intuitive concepts and advanced constructs of his relativity theory. At the time, a large portion of his theory was believed to be in too far advance of possible experimental verification. In the years following, and with aid of advancing technologies, many of these aspects were physically proven, including Einstein’s discovery of gravitational waves, the bending of light, and the structure of black holes.
In 1915, Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla were mentioned as potential laureates, though it is believed that due to their animosity toward each other that neither was ever given the award despite the enormous scientific contributions of each. There is some indication that each sought to minimize the other one's achievements, that both refused to ever accept the award if the other received it first, and that both rejected any possibility of sharing it—as was rumored in the press at the time. Tesla had a greater financial need for the award than Edison: in 1916, he filed for bankruptcy.
In 1939, Lise Meitner contributed directly to the discovery of nuclear fission but received no Nobel Prize recognition. In fact, it was she, not winner Otto Hahn, who first analyzed the accumulated experimental data and discovered fission. In his defense, Hahn claimed to be under strong pressure from the Nazis to minimize Meitner's role since she was Jewish. He maintained this position even after the war.
Nobel Prize in Chemistry
The Nobel Prize in Chemistry is awarded annually by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences to the person or persons who are believed to have made the most important contribution to the field of chemistry, be it in research, analysis, or discovery.
In 1911, Marie Curie received her second Nobel Prize, this time in the field of chemistry. She was awarded the prize for her discovery of radium, its subsequent isolation, and further in-depth analysis of the element. In 1935, Curie’s daughter, Irene Joliot Curie, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry along with husband Frederic Joliot for their synthesis of new radioactive elements.
In 2006, American Roger D. Kornberg was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his studies of the molecular basis of eukaryotic transcription, or the process of which genetic information from DNA is copied to RNA. Kornberg’s father, Arthur Kornberg, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1959.
Dmitri Mendeleev, who originated the periodic table of chemical elements, was never awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Mendeleev died in 1907; six years after the first Nobel Prizes were awarded. He came within one vote of winning the prize in 1906.
In 1938, German chemist Richard Kuhn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in recognition of his work regarding carotenoids and vitamins. In 1939, German chemist Adolf Butenant was awarded the prize for his work regarding sex hormones. Both winners were forced to decline the award in the consecutive years due to pressures from the German government. In later years, both chemists received the award’s diploma and medal.
Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been awarded every year since 1901 and recognizes a person or persons who have made outstanding contributions to the fields of physiology or medicine. Recognized contributions have included the discovery of penicillin, genetic engineering, and blood typing.
The first Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to Emil Von Behing of Germany for his work on serum therapy, particularly for its use in treating diphtheria.
In 1932, Canadians Frederick Banting and John Macleod received the Nobel Prize in Medicine for the discovery of insulin. Associate Charles Best first isolated insulin, but was excluded from the Nobel Prize in favor of Macleod. This snub so incensed Best's colleague, Frederick Banting, that he later voluntarily shared half of his 1923 Nobel Prize award money with Best.
The most recognized discovery was awarded in 1962, given to Francis Harry Compton Crick, James Dewey Watson, and Maurice Hugh Frederick Wilkins "for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material," or the discovery of DNA.
Oswald Theodore Avery, best known for his 1944 discovery that DNA is the material of which genes and chromosomes are composed, never received a Nobel Prize, though two Nobel Laureates Joshua Lederberg and Arne Tiselius unfailingly praised him for his work and service as a pioneering platform for further genetic research and advance.
Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, who discovered, respectively, the injected and oral vaccines for polio, never received Nobel Prizes even though their discoveries have enabled humankind to conquer a dreaded disease and have saved the lives of thousands of people since the late 1950s.
Nobel Prize in Literature
The Nobel Prize in Literature is awarded annually to an author from any country that has, in the words of Alfred Nobel, produced "the most outstanding work of an idealistic tendency." The work in this case generally refers to an author's collection as a whole, not to any individual work, though individual works are sometimes cited in the awards. The Swedish Academy decides who, if anyone, will receive the prize in any given year.
In 1902, the prize was awarded to Theodor Mommsen in recognition of his contribution to historical writing, in particular A History of Rome. Mommsen received the award at age 85, and remains the oldest prize winner in literature to date.
In 1907, Englishman Rudyard Kipling was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his talents regarding narration, originality, and imagination within his collected works. Kipling is the youngest prize winner in literature to date, receiving the award at age 42.
In 1953, the Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded the Sir Winston Churchill of the United Kingdom for “his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.” One year later American Ernest Hemingway received the prize for his mastery of narration, particularly commended for his work The Old Man and the Sea.
The original citation of this Nobel Prize has led to much controversy. In the original Swedish translation, the word idealisk can mean either "idealistic" or "ideal." In earlier years the Nobel Committee stuck closely to the intent of the will, and left out certain world-renowned writers such as Leo Tolstoy and Henrik Ibsen for the prize because their works were not deemed "idealistic" enough. In later years the wording has been interpreted more liberally, and the prize has been awarded for lasting literary merit.
The choice of the 2004 winner, Elfriede Jelinek, drew criticism from within the academy itself. Knut Ahnlund, who had not played an active role in the academy since 1996, resigned after Jelinek received the award, saying that picking the author had caused "irreparable damage" to the award's reputation.
TV and radio personality Gert Fylking started the tradition of shouting Äntligen!, Swedish for "At last!," at the announcing of the award winner, as a protest to the academy’s constant nomination of "authors more or less unknown to the general public." Fylking later agreed to stop his outburst, though the tradition has been carried on by others.
Nobel Prize in Peace
According to Alfred Nobel's will, the Nobel Peace Prize should be awarded "to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between the nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses." The Peace Prize is awarded annually in Norway’s capital city of Oslo, unlike the other Nobel Prizes, which are awarded in Stockholm, Sweden.
The first Nobel Peace Prize was awarded in 1901, given by the President of Norwegian Parliament until the establishment of the Norwegian Nobel Committee in 1904. The five members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee are appointed by the Norwegian Parliament, or the Stortinget, and it is entrusted both with the preparatory work related to prize adjudication and with the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize. Its members are independent and do not answer to lawmakers. Members of the Norwegian government are not allowed to take any part in it.
In 1901, winners Henry Dunant, founder of the Red Cross, and renowned pacifist Frederic Passy shared the first Nobel Prize in Peace for their influential humanitarian efforts and peace movements.
Nobel Peace-laureates often have a lifetime's history of working at and promoting humanitarian issues, as in the examples of German medic Albert Schweitzer (1952 laureate); civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1964 laureate); the worldwide human rights organization Amnesty International (1977 laureate); missionary leader Mother Teresa (1979 laureate); Aung San Suu Kyi, a Buddhist nonviolent pro-democracy activist (1991 laureate); and Yitzhak Rabin, Israeli prime minister (1994 laureate). Still others are selected for tireless efforts, as in the examples of Jimmy Carter (1992 laureate) and Mohamed ElBaradei (2005 laureate).
Some award winners have been quite controversial, often due to the recipient's political activity, as in the case of Henry Kissinger (1973 laureate), Mikhail Gorbachev (1990 laureate), or Yasser Arafat (1994 laureate) whose Fatah movement began, and still serves as a terrorist organization. The 2007 prize awarded to Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), given for efforts to raise awareness on climate-change and to develop measures to counteract it, was criticized because the work was not directly related to ending conflict. The 2009 prize awarded to Barack Obama in the first year of Obama's presidency was criticized as being premature. The 2010 prize awarded to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was viewed negatively in China, with some in the government arguing that Liu did not promote "international friendship, disarmament, and peace meetings." Perhaps the most controversial award winners were Le Duc Tho and Kissinger, whose recognition prompted two dissenting committee members to resign.
All Nobel Peace Prize nominations from 1901 to 1951 have been released in a database, and showed Adolf Hitler to be nominated in 1939. The nomination was retracted in February of the same year. Other infamous nominees include Joseph Stalin and Benito Mussolini.
Mahatma Gandhi never received the Nobel Peace Prize, though he was nominated for it five times between 1937 and 1948. Decades after Ghandi’s death, the Nobel Committee publicly declared its regret for the omission and may have tacitly acknowledged its error when in 1948, the year of Gandhi's death, the committee made no award, stating "there was no suitable living candidate." Similarly, when the Dalai Lama was awarded the Peace Prize in 1989, the chairman of the committee said that this was "in part a tribute to the memory of Mahatma Gandhi."
Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics
The Nobel Prize in Economics is a prize awarded each year for outstanding intellectual contributions in the field of economics. The award was instituted by the Bank of Sweden, the world's oldest central bank, at its 300th anniversary in 1968. Although it was not one of the awards established in the will of Alfred Nobel, economics laureates receive their diploma and gold medal from the Swedish monarch at the same December 10th ceremony in Stockholm as the other Nobel laureates. The amount of money awarded to the economics laureates is also equal to that of the other prizes.
The prestige of the prize derives in part from its association with the awards created by Alfred Nobel's will, an association which has often been a source of controversy. The prize is commonly referred to as the Nobel Prize in Economics or, more correctly, as the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics.
In February 1995, it was decided that the economics prize be essentially defined as a prize in social sciences, opening the Nobel Prize to great contributions in fields like political science, psychology, and sociology. The Economics Prize Committee has also undergone changes to require two non-economists to decide the prize each year, whereas previously the prize committee had consisted of five economists.
The economics laureates, like the Nobel laureates in chemistry and physics, are chosen by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Nominations of about one hundred living persons are made each year by qualified nominators and are received by a five to eight member committee, which then submits its choice of winners to the Nobel Assembly for its final approval. As with the other prizes, no more than three people can share the prize for a given year and they must be living at the time the prize is awarded.
Winners of the Nobel Prize in Economics have included Ragnar Frisch and Jan Tinbergen (1969) for their development of dynamic economic models, Wassily Leontief (1973) for the development of the input-output method, and Edmund S. Phelps (2006) for his analysis of inter-temporal tradeoffs in macroeconomic policy.
Criticisms of the Nobel Prizes
The Nobel Prizes have been criticized over the years, with people suggesting that formal agreements and name recognition are more important than actual achievements in the process of deciding who is awarded a prize. Perhaps the most infamous case of this was in 1973 when Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho shared the Peace Prize for bringing peace to Vietnam, even though the Vietnam War was ongoing at the time. Le Duc Tho declined the award, for the stated reason that peace had not been achieved.
The strict rules against a Nobel Prize being awarded to more than three people at once is also a cause for controversy. Where a prize is awarded to recognize an achievement by a team of more than three collaborators, inevitably one or more will miss out. For example, in 2002, a prize was awarded to Koichi Tanaka and John Fenn for the development of mass spectrometry in protein chemistry, failing to recognize the achievements of Franz Hillenkamp and Michael Karas of the Institute for Physical and Theoretical Chemistry at the University of Frankfurt.
Similarly, the rule against posthumous prizes often fails to recognize important achievements by a collaborator who happens to have died before the prize is awarded. For example, Rosalind Franklin made some of the key developments in the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953, but she died of ovarian cancer in 1958 and the Prize was awarded to Francis Crick, James D. Watson, and Maurice Wilkins, Franklin's collaborators, in 1962.
Criticism was levied towards the 2005 Nobel Prize in Physics, specifically the recognition of Roy Glauber and not George Sudarshan for the award. Arguably, Sudarshan's work is the more accepted of the two. Though Glauber did publish his work first in 1963, Sudarshan's work later that same year is the work upon which most of quantum optics is based.
The Nobel Prizes are also criticized for their lack of a mathematics award. There are several possible reasons why Nobel created no prize for mathematics. Nobel's will speaks of prizes for those "inventions or discoveries" of greatest practical benefit to mankind, possibly having in mind practical rather than theoretical works. Mathematics was not considered a practical science from which humanity could benefit, a key purpose for the Nobel Foundation.
One other possible reason was that there was already a well-known Scandinavian prize for mathematicians. The existing mathematical awards at the time were mainly due to the work of Gösta Mittag-Leffler, who founded the Acta Mathematica, a century later still one of the world's leading mathematical journals. Through his influence in Stockholm, he persuaded King Oscar II to endow prize competitions and honor distinguished mathematicians all over Europe, including Hermite, Joseph Louis François Bertrand, Karl Theodor Wilhelm Weierstrass, and Henri Poincaré.
In 2001, the government of Norway began awarding the Abel Prize, specifically with the intention of being a substitute for the missing mathematics Nobel. Beginning in 2004, the Shaw Prize, which resembles the Nobel Prize, included an award in mathematical sciences. The Fields Medal is often described as the "Nobel Prize of mathematics," but the comparison is not very apt because the Fields is limited to mathematicians not over forty years old.
- Curie was awarded the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics after discovering radioactivity. She was later awarded the 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry after her isolation of radium.
- Linus Pauling received the 1954 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for construction of the Hybridized Orbital Theory, and later the 1962 Nobel Peace Prize for activism in regards to the Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty.
- John Bardeen was awarded both the 1956 and 1972 Nobel Prize in Physics for his invention of the transistor, and later for his theory of superconductivity.
- Frederick Sanger was awarded both the 1958 and 1980 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for identifying the structure of the insulin molecule, and later for his virus nucleotide sequencing.
Additionally, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1917, 1944, and 1963. The first two prizes were specifically in recognition of the group's work during the world wars.
Recipients In Absentia
Carl von Ossietzky, the 1935 Nobel Peace Prize winner, was at first required by the Nazi German government to decline the Nobel Prize, a demand that Ossietzky did not honor, and then was prevented by the same government from going to Oslo personally to accept the Nobel Prize. He was kept under surveillance—a virtual house arrest—in a civilian hospital until his death in 1938, even though the German Propaganda Ministry was known to have publicly declared Ossietzky's freedom to go to Norway to accept the award. After this incident, in 1937, the German government decreed that in the future no German could accept any Nobel Prize.
Andrei Sakharov, the first Soviet citizen to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1975, was not allowed to receive or personally travel to Oslo to accept the prize. He was described as "a Judas" and a "laboratory rat of the West" by the Soviet authorities. His wife, Elena Bonner, who was in Italy for medical treatment, received the prize in her husband's stead and presented the Nobel Prize acceptance speech by proxy.
Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, but was not allowed to make any formal acceptance speech or statement of any kind to that effect, nor leave Myanmar (Burma) to receive the prize. Her sons Alexander and Kim accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on her behalf.
Elfriede Jelinek was awarded the 2004 Nobel Prize in Literature, but declined to go in person to Stockholm to receive the prize, citing severe social phobia and mental illness. She made a video instead and wrote out the speech text to be read out in lieu.
Harold Pinter was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2005, but was unable to attend the ceremonies owing to poor health. He, too, delivered his controversial, "all-defying" speech via video.
Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 "for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China." He was imprisoned in his country at the time of the award and neither he nor his family were allowed to attend the ceremony.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
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- Feldman, Burton. The Nobel Prize: A History of Genius, Controversy, and Prestige. Arcade Publishing, 2001. ISBN 1559705922
- Fredholm, Lotta. “The Discovery of the Molecular Structure of DNA – The Double Helix.” Nobel Foundation. Retrieved December 9, 2019.
- Nobel Foundation. “Nobel Prize Facts.” Retrieved December 9, 2019.
- Nobel Foundation. “Nomination and selection of Nobel Laureates ” Retrieved December 9, 2019.
- Spinney, Laura. “Nobel Prize controversy.” The Scientist December 11, 2002. Retrieved December 9, 2019.
- The Nobel Prize Internet Archive. “Why is there no Nobel Prize in Mathematics?” Retrieved December 9, 2019.
- Tønnesson, Øyvind. “With Fascism on the Doorstep: The Nobel Institution in Norway, 1940–1945.” Retrieved December 9, 2019.
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All links retrieved November 15, 2022.
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