The time lag between reporting a scientific discovery worthy of a Nobel prize and the awarding of the medal has increased, with waits of more than 20 years becoming common. If this trend continues, some candidates might not live long enough to attend their Nobel ceremonies.

Before 1940, Nobels were awarded more than 20 years after the original discovery for only about 11% of physics, 15% of chemistry and 24% of physiology or medicine prizes, respectively. Since 1985, however, such lengthy delays have featured in 60%, 52% and 45% of these awards, respectively.

Credit: Sources: Rev. Lett. 'Letters from the past' (2008)

The increasing average interval between reporting discoveries and their formal recognition can be fitted to an exponential curve (see 'The long road to Sweden'), with data points scattered about the mean value.

As this average interval becomes longer, so the average age at which laureates are awarded the prize goes up. By the end of this century, the prizewinners' predicted average age for receiving the award is likely to exceed his or her projected life expectancy (data not shown). Given that the Nobel prize cannot be awarded posthumously, this lag threatens to undermine science's most venerable institution.