AN INVETERATE traveller,
his motto is a familiar one: 'My home is where I work - and I work
everywhere'. Born in Sweden in 1833, Alfred Nobel spent his childhood
in St. Petersburg, made his industrial mark in Hamburg, settled
in Paris, and died in San Remo, one 10 December, the day on which
the Nobel Prizes for Physics and Chemistry continue to be awarded.
A misanthrope sensitive
to the ills of the world, a melancholic with more than a touch of
irony, a pacifist who earned his fortune from explosives, Alfred
Nobel led a strange life. Following an initial innovation based
on nitro-glycerine, Nobel went on to accumulate a huge number of
patents (355 to his name) and factories (about a hundred), and a
considerable fortune, all the while harbouring the hope of one day
discovering a substance or a device with sufficient destructive
power to banish war for ever.
Science and humanism
His desire was to reward those who 'have brought
the greatest benefits to mankind', through their work in fields
as diverse as the sciences, literary creation and peace-making.
The prizes for physics and chemistry were to be awarded by the Swedish
Academy of Sciences, the physiology and medical prizes by the Karolinska
Institute, and the literature prize by the Stockholm Academy. As
to the peace prize, that was to be awarded outside Nobel's home
country, as he preferred to entrust it to the Norwegian Parliament,
the Storting, 'one of the few genuinely democratic assemblies in
Europe', while the 'prize for economic sciences in memory of Alfred
Nobel' was created in 1968 by the Swedish Central Bank.
And mathematics? Conspicuously absent - but not
the mathematicians themselves. Most of them have been rewarded for
physics (Lorentz, Planck, Einstein), some for economics (Tinbergen,
Kantorovich, Nash), or even literature (Russell). As a fine example
of disciplinary interaction, two mathematicians, Walter Kohn (USA)
and John Pople (UK), were awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry
(1998) for having enabled chemists to apply Schrödinger's quantum
equation (concerning particles) to the behaviour of molecules.
The procedure for awarding all these prizes is
the same. The various institutions responsible elect a committee
which, every year, invites experts and institutions from different
countries to select a number of candidates (nobody can put his own
name forward) whose merits are then considered by the committee
members, aided by experts. They then submit a list of names (rarely
more than five) to the Nobel body charged with judging them. The
discussions are held in secret. In 1974, however, the Nobel Foundation
changed its rules to allow a few science historians to study its
The value of the prizes changes from year to year
depending on the revenue earned by the Nobel Foundation, which manages
a legacy that was worth 32 million kronor at the end of the last
century. Since 1987, the general public have been able to buy into
this capital by acquiring shares and bonds, this permitting a very
rapid rise in the value of the Foundation's assets. Before this,
in 1962, the Italian-Swiss International Balzan Foundation had awarded
its first prize, worth 1 million Swiss francs, to the Nobel Foundation,
and in 1972, Georg von Békésy, the 1961 Nobel prizewinner
for medicine, had left all his fortune to the Foundation. In 1901
a Nobel Prize was 150 800 kronor. Today it is worth 10 million kronor.
Although those responsible for managing the Nobel
fortune certainly seem to have been perceptive, what about the juries?
A quick glance at the names of the Nobel prizewinners for medicine,
for example, leaves no room for doubt. Throughout the years, the
names of the prizewinners are inextricably linked to major advances
in scientific knowledge. Tuberculosis and Robert Koch,
vitamin C and Albert Szent-Györgyi, antibiotics and Alexander
Fleming, the world of cells explored by Albert Claude and Christian
René de Duve, the drosophila fly (one of the keys to genetics),
a host of researchers working on DNA
the list is long.
Erring on the side of caution?
Yet for all that, the choices of the scientific
juries are not altogether immune from criticism. Excessive caution
is the charge sometimes levied when a Nobel Prize goes to already
acclaimed figures whose work is well-established. Wilhelm Röntgen,
who discovered X-rays in 1895, received many awards before being
distinguished by the Swedish Academy in 1901. More recently (1988),
the physicist Léon Lederman, rewarded for a discover he had
made 20 years previously, commented that his Nobel Prize had 'had
the time to mature'. The juries are also sometimes criticised for
trying to make good past oversights, such as in 1921 when they honoured
Einstein, not for the principle of relativity formulated back in
1905, but for clearly less significant work on the photoelectric
effect and Brownian motion.
Some choices have also raised ethical questions,
for example when Fritz Haber, Nobel laureate in 1918, admitted having
been one of the principal supporters of the use of gases for military
purposes. The list of Nobel prizewinners also includes very few
women, particularly in the field of sciences. Out of 457 Nobel laureates,
just 11 are women. The first woman to win the award was Marie Sklodowska
Curie (1903), and the most recent the German biologist Christiane
Another laureate is Irène Joliot-Curie
(1935), the daughter of two prizewinners. This is not the only example
of prizewinning running in the same family, with father and son
teams being particularly prominent, such as Joseph John Thomson
and George Paget Thomson (two British physicists), Hans von Euler-Chelpin
and Ulf von Euler (chemist and physiologist), Niels and Aage Bohr
(Danish physicists), and Sir William Lawrence Bragg of Great Britain
who was just 25 years old when he shared a Nobel with his father
William Henry Bragg (1915).
Then there are the 'master-pupil' connections,
with no fewer than 12 former students of Ernest Rutherford (chemistry,
1908) going on to win a Nobel themselves. Certain universities (in
particular Cambridge and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
in the US) also seem to be a breeding ground for Nobel prizewinners,
while an impressive number of Nobel prizewinners have worked at
CERN (the European laboratory for particle physics, in Geneva):
Felix Bloch, Samuel Ting, Carlo Rubbia and Simon Van der Meer, Jack
Steinberger, Georges Charpak; it is beginning to look a bit like
Nobel Museum, Björkborn Manor, Sweden
The Big Idea, Ardeer, Glasgow
Exhibition on a century of discoveries and Nobel Prizes
Cultures of Creativity: The Centennial
Exhibition of the Nobel Prize
until the end of December 2001 - Norsk Folkemuseum, Oslo
Marie Curie is not the only
person to have been awarded two Nobel Prizes. Linus Pauling
received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1954 and later the
Nobel Peace Prize in 1962. This scientist devoted the latter
half of his life to campaigning for nuclear disarmament -
playing an important role in adopting the 1963 international
treaty banning nuclear testing in the atmosphere.
Just one man's opinion?
'Starting out from nothing, we have become like film stars.
We have been subjected to what can only be called torture.
We are not used to this public life which prevents us from
continuing with our work.
Our lives have been thrown into turmoil.'
Nobel Prize for Medicine, 1965).
Making a mockery
Are some scientists secret surrealists?
Every year, at Harvard University, a scrupulously formal ceremony
is held to award the Ig Nobel (read ig-noble), in recognition
of goofy ideas and flights of fancy. Exclusively in the field
of science and technology.