Monday, October 5, 2015

The story and glory of Nobel Prize

October is that time of the year when the scientific, literary and peace enthusiasts from across the globe zoom in their attention to the various press centers in Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Karolinska Institutet and Swedish Academy in Stockholm, Sweden and the Norwegian Nobel Institute, Oslo, Norway. Here’s a brief account of some of the well-known facts about the coveted Prize and the man behind it.

Alfred Bernhard Nobel

Alfred Bernhard Nobel had a humble childhood with his seven siblings in Stockholm with his parents Immanuel and Caroline Nobel. Poverty stricken, four of Immanuel’s children succumbed to death. An engineer by training, Immanuel moved to Russia and started his own business of machine tools and explosives for mines. The business prospered bestowing young Alfred with opportunities to get good formal education in world-class training centers. Unfortunately, the family had to return to Sweden due to unforeseen bankruptcy. Back in Stockholm, Alfred experimented with explosives in his father’s backyard. The black gunpowder which was popularly used those days had relatively unknown contents and unpredictable results. Though in 1847 Italian chemist Ascanio Sobrero invented a more powerful liquid nitroglycerin, it wasn’t used as an explosive as the reaction couldn’t be controlled or contained. Alfred experimented extensively, risking many lives of his factory workers, finally designed the very first detonator and blasting cap to contain nitroglycerin explosion, which were later patented. Later, he found out that mixing porous siliceous earth kieslguhr with nitroglycerin makes the explosion containable thus leading to the discovery of the blockbuster explosive dynamite. This was put to use in numerous ways, for cutting canals, blasting tunnels, mining, quarrying, building roads and railroads. His business empire widened in no time and he amassed immeasurable assets. An ever enthusiastic researcher and consistent explorer, Alfred held 355 patents in explosives and the related tools in later years which include the infamous ballistite (predecessor of cordite) and gelignite.

Alfred Nobel’s lab in Krummel, Germany where his extensive experiments on explosives had taken place once.

Though extremely successful in his business, he was known to be an utterly depressed man in close circles. With no close family of his own, his contemporaries remembered him to be dejected in personal life. It is assumed that, on 12th April 1888, when his brother Ludvig Nobel died in France, French newspaper Ideotie Quotidienne mistook it as Alfred Nobel and published an obituary titled “Le marchand de la mort est mort” meaning “The Merchant of death is dead”. Alfred, who was then 55 years old, is believed to have had a serious reflection on his life reading his own obituary in which he was portrayed as a ruthless facilitator of mass murders. He earnestly wanted to change the way world would remember him posthumously. Eight years after this life-changing incident he succumbed to a fatal cerebrovascular accident on 10th December 1896 in Italy. At the time of his death, he held an expansive business empire of more than ninety factories around the world and had assets worth nearly $250m. It came as a total surprise to his extended family, friends and colleagues that contrary to his previous will, he had allocated 94% of his assets to a Trust to be formed by young engineers Rudolf Lilljequist and Ragnar Sohlman. It was stated in his last will that the Trust is to recognize outstanding efforts for the betterment of mankind through breakthrough findings in Physics, Chemistry and Medicine. An ardent art-lover and poet himself, he wanted to acknowledge great literary contributions “in the right direction” for which a prize was allocated. His close association with pacific Bertha Von Suttner is believed to be his drive for devoting a prize “to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses." (Bertha Von Suttner won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905 for her works against international armament.) After many legal battles between relatives and business associates of Alfred, the Nobel Foundation was formed by the Trust on 29th June 1900 and the Prizes were awarded from 1901. The Nobel Foundation is now worth no less than three quarter of a billion US dollars. 

Excerpt from the will of Alfred Nobel 

“The whole of my remaining realizable estate shall be dealt with in the following way: the capital, invested in safe securities by my executors, shall constitute a fund, the interest on which shall be annually distributed in the form of prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind. The said interest shall be divided into five equal parts, which shall be apportioned as follows: one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery or invention within the field of physics; one part to the person who shall have made the most important chemical discovery or improvement; one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine; one part to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction; and one part to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses. The prizes for physics and chemistry shall be awarded by the Swedish Academy of Sciences; that for physiological or medical work by the Caroline Institute in Stockholm; that for literature by the Academy in Stockholm, and that for champions of peace by a committee of five persons to be elected by the Norwegian Storting. It is my express wish that in awarding the prizes no consideration whatever shall be given to the nationality of the candidates, but that the most worthy shall receive the prize, whether he be a Scandinavian or not.
As Executors of my testamentary dispositions, I hereby appoint Mr Ragnar Sohlman, resident at Bofors, Värmland, and Mr Rudolf Lilljequist, 31 Malmskillnadsgatan, Stockholm, and at Bengtsfors near Uddevalla…..”
Paris, 27 November, 1895
Alfred Bernhard Nobel

The Prize

All the Prizes except that for peace are awarded by Sweden. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Stockholm, Sweden awards the Nobel Prizes in Physics and Chemistry. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine is awarded by the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden. The Swedish Academy awards the Nobel Prize for Literature. Whereas, the Prize for peace is awarded by a five-member committee nominated by Norwegian Parliament. The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel was established by Sweden’s Central Bank in 1969 when the Nobel Foundation gave a generous donation to the bank on its 300th anniversary.
Even though, the last will of Alfred Nobel states to recognize the works of the previous year, the Prizes are given many years later only after the achievements are proven to have stood the tests of time. The respective bodies send out 3000 applications to members of academies, university professors, scientists, previous Nobel Laureates, members of parliamentary assemblies and selected others for their nominations for these Prizes for the coming year. The applications are received by January and shortlisted to 300. The nominators are chosen in such a way that as many countries and universities as possible are represented over time. The scrutiny and selection processes are strictly confidential and the list of nominees is kept in secrecy for a period of fifty years. Every year, the names of winners of the Prizes are announced in the first week of October and the annual Prize Award Ceremony is conducted on 10th December (the death anniversary of Alfred Nobel) in Stockholm, Sweden. The Peace Prize Award Ceremony is held in Oslo, Norway on the same day. The Prize includes eight million Swedish Kronor ($960,000), a diploma customized for the recipient with their picture and citation and a gold medal. A total of 889 eminent persons and organizations from around the world have been honored since 1901.

The Medal

As the pioneers in their respective fields are being honored this week, RGCB Blog will do an exclusive segment on this year’s Nobel Laureates in the coming days. Stay tuned. 

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