As the Nobel Prizes for medicine, physics, chemistry, literature and peace are announced through this week, mathematicians are once again left feeling excluded from the world’s grandest celebration of advancements that bring “the greatest benefit to mankind”.
Young Alfred Nobel.
Why did Alfred Nobel, best known as the inventor of dynamite and the holder of 355 patents, exclude math when he willed his fortune of 31 million SEK (Swedish Kroner, 265 million US$ today ) in 1896 for the creation of the Nobel Prizes?
Here are the most popular theories:
1. Math too theoretical
The Nobel Prize was created to award outstanding “practical” inventions or discoveries that benefit the world, and as an inventor and industrialist, Nobel may have considered mathematics too theoretical and not bothered to go into its practical application.
2. Math not interesting
Nobel’s own work was in physics and chemistry, he was interested in literature, and medicine was beginning to come of age at the turn of the last Century. The peace prize was included to improve his public image as a “merchant of death” for inventing dynamite. Math was of no interest or benefit to him.
3. Existing Math Award
King Oscar II of Sweden and Norway, himself a mathematician, had established a prestigious math award for mathematical contributions. Nobel may have thought there was no need to duplicate an established award of his own. Instead, he chose fields that interested him and for which there were no prestigious awards.
Rumours about Nobel’s dislike for a contemporary mathematician Gosta Mittag-Leffler, who founded the leading mathematical journal Acta Mathematica and persuaded King Oscar II to create the math award, made him exclude math because he did not want the award and the money to go to a man he didn’t care for.
5. Personal slight
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- There is a prize for mathematics that is equivalent to a Nobel Prize. I know what you’re thinking, “sure, the Fields Medal”. In fact though, the equivalent award is the prestigious Abel Prize. The Abel Prize is given out annually by the King of Norway with winners selected by a panel of five international mathematicians. It is named after Niels Henrik Abel, who was a distinguished Norwegian mathematician who lived in the early 19th century. The award includes a cash prize of close to $1 million. The Fields Medal, on the other hand, only includes a cash prize of about $15,000 and is awarded every four years and typically is not awarded for a single great achievement, but rather for a body of work. Further, the Fields Medal is only given to those under the age of 40 and 2-4 mathematicians each time win the award.
- The Abel prize was first proposed around the same time as the Nobel Prize. Sophus Lie proposed it when he learned of Alfred Nobel’s prizes and that Nobel had omitted mathematics. However, the interest in creating this prize went away after the Union between Sweden and Norway ended in 1905. It was later picked up, however, and the annual award was eventually established in 2002, the two hundredth anniversary of Abel’s birth.
- The Fields medal was founded at the encouragement of Canadian mathematician John Charles Fields in 1936.
- Alfred Nobel invented around 355 things, most notable was his invention of dynamite, in 1867, which he was originally going to call “Nobel’s Safety Powder”, as it was basically a safer version of nitroglycerin and he was attempting to improve his image as a maker of dangerous explosives. He ultimately went with “dynamite”, which was derived from Greek, meaning “power”.
- Nobel also invented “ballistite”, which was the precursor to quite a lot of military grade explosive devices.
- Along with the groups setup to select the winners of the Nobel Prizes, a separate group, The Nobel Foundation, was founded to manage Nobel’s money. To date, along with annually bequeathing money to award winners, The Nobel Foundation has grown Nobel’s assets up to around half a billion dollars. This may seem an extremely poor improvement over the $250 million they started with over 100 years ago, particularly considering they operate tax free. However, that “$250 million” is already adjusted for inflation and they invest very conservatively to make sure to be able to maintain the Nobel Prize awards for years to come. And of course, they annually dole out quite large prizes to recipients.
- Each recipient of a Nobel Prize receives a gold medal (18 carat green gold which is then plated with 24 carat gold), a certificate, and some amount of money which varies from year to year. In 2009, that sum was about $1.4 million. Up to three people can share an award. When this happens, it is up to the awarding body to decide how the money is divided amongst the winners. Most winners end up donating their award money to various causes and charities. Mother Theresa even refused to go to the award dinner, stating that the money could be better used elsewhere. The $7000 that the award dinner costs was then donated to a charity in her name and the dinner was canceled.
- Upon winning the award, each recipient is required to give a public lecture within six months of receiving the award. The lecture is to be on a subject related to the prize they won.
- To date, four people have won a Nobel Prize twice. Those include: Maria Sklodowska-Curie (1903 and 1911, for discovery of radioactivity (physics) and later for isolating pure radium (chemistry)); John Bardeen (1956 and 1972, for invention of the transistor (physics) and for coming up with the theory of superconductivity(physics)); Linus Pauling (1954 and 1962, for research into the chemical bond in terms of complex substances (chemistry) and for anti-nuclear activism (peace)); and Frederick Sanger (1958 and 1980, for discovering the structure of the insulin molecule (chemistry) and inventing a method to determine base sequences in DNA (chemistry)).
- Not only did Maria Curie win two Nobel Prizes, but her family has been the recipient of five total Nobel Prizes. She won two, her husband, Pierre Curie, won one. Her daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie, won the Chemistry Prize in 1935 with her husband. Her second daughter was also the director of UNICEF when it won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1965.
- Curie’s notes from the 1890s are still today considered too dangerous to handle without protection due to the high levels of radioactivity. They are stored in lead-lined boxes. Neither she or her husband, of course, knew anything about that and handled radioactive items all the time in their research. She eventually paid the price for this, dieing from aplastic anemia. Her husband was killed after being run over by a horse drawn carriage some 28 years before Marie Curie herself died.
2017 Nobel Prize Winners
Kip Thorne, Rainer Weiss and Barry Barish have won the 2017 Nobel prize in physics for the Ligo instrument and its detection of gravitational waves, the ripples in spacetime first predicted by Einstein 100 years ago.
Richard Henderson from the LMB’s Structural Studies Division, shares the honour jointly with Jacques Dubochet and Joachim Frank “for developing cryo-electron microscopy for the high-resolution structure determination of biomolecules in solution”.
Physiology or medicine
Jeffrey C Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W Young share prize awarded for discoveries of molecular mechanisms controlling circadian rhythms – the body’s inner clock – fundamental to human health.
International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) for its decade-long campaign to rid the world of the atomic bomb.
The Geneva-based campaign was launched 10 years ago at an international conference on the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and its aim was to consolidate the anti-nuclear movement and push for a global ban akin to those in place for biological and chemical weapons and landmines.