A Nobel Legacy

Jason Smith 17 October 2014

Most people would’ve heard of the Nobel Prizes, particularly the Peace Prize. This prestigious annual event continues to garner sizeable amounts of press attention and discussion from around the globe which manages to infiltrate both academic discourse and popular culture.

So how did it start and where? The simple answer is in one man, Alfred Nobel, born in Stockholm, Sweden in 1833. With Alfred being one of eight children - with just four reaching adulthood suggests, along with bouts of illness himself, his childhood was not the happiest. However, despite this challenging start in life Alfred was able to attend private tutoring paid for by his father who, with a new found prosperity as an engineer manufacturing explosives, was able to pay the fees to give his son a strong educational foothold.

This resulted in Alfred, by the age of 16, being a competent chemist and fluent in English, French, German, and Russian, as well as Swedish. After a few stints abroad to study chemistry in Paris and gain work experience in the US, Alfred decided to continue in his father’s footsteps and work in explosives. Working with a newly discovered liquid compound, nitro-glycerine, he created the blasting cap detonator and was later responsible for inventing and patenting dynamite. Given the still volatile nature of the materials meant that accidents were common place culminating in a loss of a factory and his younger brother Emile.

Nobel was a complex man who was reportedly a pacifist, yet had created something so destructive and benifited greatly from it. This did not sit well with a growing pessimistic view of himself and mankind which was compounded in 1888 when the French media mistakenly reported Alfred’s death, when in fact it was his brother Ludvig, with the headline:

Le marchand de la mort est mort (“The merchant of death is dead.”)

This premature obituary affected him deeply and, to avoid such posthumous vilification, led Alfred to use his wealth atruistically and come up with the idea of the prizes to ensure a more positive and glowing legacy. In 1895, a year before he died, he signed his last will and testament and set aside the bulk of his estate to establish the Nobel Prizes, to be awarded annually without distinction of nationality. This amounted to 31,225,000 Swedish Kronor which at the time equated to just over £1.5m which today would amount to approximately £270m. He was instrumental in deciding the categories: physics, chemistry, physiology, and literature, with Economic Sciences being added posthumously in 1968. In his will, Alfred stipulated that the Nobel Committee, those institutions responsible for the selection of the candidates, should be the following:

From Stockholm, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences confers the prizes for physics, chemistry, and economics, the Karolinska Institute confers the prize for physiology or medicine, and the Swedish Academy confers the prize for literature. The Norwegian Nobel Committee based in Oslo confers the prize for peace.

Britannica Online: Noble Prize / Updated 13.10.14

Alfred died in San Remo, Italy after suffering a stroke which left him partially paralyzed. He later died on the 10 December, 1896. His will was then put into action, which at the time caused some controversy, and in 1900 the Nobel Foundation was established (and continues to this day) to carry out the provisions of his will with the first awards taking place in 1901.

Over the years the selection process has largely remained the same except for some tweaks along the way to allow, for example, medical advancements to withstand the test of time. One of the most notable embarrassments for the foundation was an award given to Johannes Fibeiger in 1926 for discovering the parasite that caused cancer.

So how does it work? The Noblel Committee send out forms to 6000 individuals in the previous September. They are, more often than not, academics working in the category areas and their identities remain classified for 50 years after their participation. The Norwegian Nobel Committee sends out similar peace prize forms to governments, international courts, past peace prize winners and religious leaders. The deadline for nominations is 31 January of the year of the awards with nominations (that are not published) numbering around 100 - 250. The Nobel Committee then convene to reflect on the nominations (and can technically ignore them over their own choices) and over the next few months confirm their selection, which is final, by the 15 November. Each category allows for multiple laureates, and prizes may be given only to individuals, except the Peace Prize, which may be conferred upon an institution.This year in 2014 the announcements came early between the 7 and 10 October. This year’s laureates are as follows:

Physics:  awarded jointly to Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura "for the invention of efficient blue light-emitting diodes which has enabled bright and energy-saving white light sources".

Chemistry: awarded jointly to Eric Betzig, Stefan W. Hell and William E. Moerner "for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy".

Physiology or Medicine: was awarded with one half to John O'Keefe and the other half jointly to May-Britt Moser and Edvard I.Moser "for their discoveries of cells that constitute a positioning system in the brain".

Literature was awarded to Patrick Modiano "for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation".

The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel 2014 was awarded to Jean Tirole "for his analysis of market power and regulation".

The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded jointly to Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai "for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education"

Courtesy of Nobelprize.org 2014

After the announcements comes the Nobel Prize awards itself on the anniversary of Nobel's death, the10 December. The laureates receive the Nobel Medal, Nobel Diploma and a document confirming the Nobel Prize (monetry) amount from King Carl XVI Gustaf. This takes place in Stockholm with the Peace Prize taking place, on the same day, in Oslo, Norway. In those categories where there is more than one winner, laureates will then share the monetary prize between them.

The Nobel Prizes has its critics in areas around bias towards men with just 47 of the 964 awards to date going to women. Whether this is an issue for the nominators and their respective fields and/or the Nobel Committee remains to be seen but the results clearly reveal a major imbalance that cannot be ignored. Other issues have been those conspicuous by their absence, most notably Mahatma Gandhi, who employed non-violent civil disobedience that led India to independence. It has been since revealed that he had been nominated numerous times but was never awarded. There have also been refusals with Jean Paul Sartre eruditely stating “a writer must refuse to allow himself to be transformed into an institution, even if it takes place in the most honourable form." (The Boxer & the Goal Keeper: Satre vs. Camus 2012).

One wonders what Alfred might think of the awards today; have they remained close to his initial vision? One suspects it has with the Nobel Foundation set up specifically to ensure that his wishes remain in place. However, with his pessimism for the human race, would he actually be impressed by the lasting impact the awards, which have ran for well over a 100 years now. We’ll never know but whatever your views are on the awards, Alfred Nobel should be applauded for transforming his legacy, ensuring it is less about dynamite and death and more about peace and achievement.

Pictures:Portait of Alfred Nobel and Three Nobel Laureates in Physics. Front row from left: Albert A. Michelson (1907), Albert Einstein (1921) and Robert A. Millikan (1923).

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