One hundred and eleven years ago today, the first Nobel Prizes were awarded in Stockholm, Sweden, for physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and peace. The day marked the five year anniversary of the death of Alfred Nobel, the award’s namesake and the inventor of dynamite. The History Channel writes:
In 1875, Nobel created a more powerful form of dynamite, blasting gelatin, and in 1887 introduced ballistite, a smokeless nitroglycerin powder. Around that time, one of Nobel’s brothers died in France, and French newspapers printed obituaries in which they mistook him for Alfred. One headline read, “The merchant of death is dead.” Alfred Nobel in fact had pacifist tendencies and in his later years apparently developed strong misgivings about the impact of his inventions on the world. After he died in San Remo, Italy, on December 10, 1896, the majority of his estate went toward the creation of prizes to be given annually in the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and peace. The portion of his will establishing the Nobel Peace Prize read, “ to the person who has done the most or best work for fraternity among nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies, and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” Exactly five years after his death, the first Nobel awards were presented.
The prizes are actually announced earlier in the year, in November, but the actual ceremony for handing them out is always December 10th to a bit less international fanfare. In 1901, the first nobel prizes ever were awarded to the following people:
- Physics: Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen “in recognition of the extraordinary services he has rendered by the discovery of the remarkable rays subsequently named after him”.
- Chemistry: Jacobus Henricus van ‘t Hoff “in recognition of the extraordinary services he has rendered by the discovery of the laws of chemical dynamics and osmotic pressure in solutions”.
- Physiology or Medicine: Emil von Behring “for his work on serum therapy, especially its application against diphtheria, by which he has opened a new road in the domain of medical science and thereby placed in the hands of the physician a victorious weapon against illness and deaths”.
- Literature: Sully Prudhomme “in special recognition of his poetic composition, which gives evidence of lofty idealism, artistic perfection and a rare combination of the qualities of both heart and intellect”.
- Peace: Henry Dunant and Frederic Passy (with no explanation given)
You might notice that there’s no Nobel Prize for math, which is a bit odd. Among mathematicians, there’s a story that goes something like this: Alfred Nobel’s wife was cheating on him with a mathematician named Gosta Mittag-Leffler. Mittag-Leffler was a really good mathematician. So good that, should there have been a prize to award, he would have won it. And, therefore, there isn’t one.
Of course, that story is a bit too good to be true. Nobel never had a wife, and even his mistress seems to have had nothing at all to do with Mittag-Leffler. In fact, even without the cheating, it’s hard to find any evidence that Nobel had any hard feelings at all towards the mathematician. It’s far more likely that Nobel simply wasn’t interested in math.
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