Its not: why haven’t I one won? I have. A sixth form science prize. In my salad days I would day dream about winning the big one (to the sound of Freddy Mercury crooning `We Are The Champions’). But, one ages and comes to term with one’s mediocrity.
In the good old days, when men were men and sheep were nervous, prizes were awarded for accomplishing particular tasks. The French academy of sciences, for example, established in 1781, I think, a system of prizes or contests. A committee would set a goal (in 1766 it was to solve the 6 body problem, in 1818 it was explain the properties of light) and submissions judged after a deadline and a prize, if merited, awarded. One sees that today with the X -prize and the Clay prize. The puzzle with these prizes is would the challenge they highlight not be undertaken in their absence? For example, resolving P = NP has been around well before the Clay prize and many a bright young thing had already given it serious thought.
Many prizes are `achievement’ awards, given out in recognition of a great accomplishment after the fact. Some are awarded by learned societies and named in honor of an ancient worthy (Leibniz, Lagrange, Laplace etc.) Others are funded by private individuals (Nobel, Nemmers, Simons etc.).
Some learned societies have a surfeit of prizes (Mathematics) that are concentrated in the hands of a few. Indeed, one might be able to construct a partial order of the prizes and come to the conclusion that some prize X can only be awarded provided prize Y has already been secured. Once again, there is the incentive question. It is hard to imagine the prize winner strives and continues to do so in the anticipation of winning further prizes. If the purpose of the prize is to honor the work (rather than the individual) why give the $$’s to the individual? Perhaps better to take the $$’s, divide them up and hand it to junior researchers in the same area telling them they have received it in honor of X, a pioneer of the field.
Other learned societies have very few prizes (American Economic Association). There is the Clark medal (famous), Walker medal (discontinued after Nobel), Ely Lecture and the Distinguished Fellow (who?). No doubt, this is a great comfort for the members’ status anxiety. Although I have it heard it said that a paucity of awards can adversely affect a discipline in that it lessens its members chances of securing grants. No doubt this is why some learned societies have prizes for every age group and speciality one can imagine: best under 40 in applied nobble nozing theory.
Why do private individuals fund prizes? Nobel is the archetype. Is it a way to purchase reflected glory? The founders of Facebook and Google are famous in their own right, so it is hard to see how a prize will burnish their images. Perhaps they genuinely wish to support research into topic X. One can easily imagine more effective ways to do this via grants, fellowships and conferences. Indeed, both the Kavli and Simons do just this (in addition to handing out prizes). Perhaps its advertising. If one wishes to publicize the importance of some field, does awarding a generous prize buy more publicity than a simple advertisement or cultivating journalists? Unclear. How many have heard of the recent `breakthrough’ prizes?