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Nobel Prize: Did You Know?

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Starting Monday, the 2013 Nobel Prize winners will be announced in a series of ceremonies over the course of the week. The Nobel Prize is longstanding in its prestige (and controversy). Here are a few lesser known facts:

The Nobel Prize was started by Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite. Nobel, a brilliant chemist, engineer, inventor, and entrepreneur amassed 355 patents (and quite a fortune) by the time he passed away in 1896. When the executors of his estate opened his will, they discovered that Nobel’s wish was for his wealth be used to create prizes in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology and Medicine, Literature, and Peace. The awards were to go to individuals or organizations who in the preceding year had “conferred the greatest benefit to mankind” in these categories. Nobel’s wish took everyone by surprise, including his family and the institutions he designated to pick winners. The first prizes were not awarded until five years later, in 1901.

That’s right, the founder of the Nobel Peace Prize was the inventor of an explosive. Nobel actually believed that in creating dynamite, he was bringing the world one step closer to peace. “When two armies of equal strength can annihilate each other in an instant,” Nobel wrote, “then all civilized nations will retreat and disband their troops.” He was not exactly correct on that point, but he wasn’t the only scientist with the hope. Albert Einstein, though instrumental in the launch of the Manhattan Project (which produced the first atomic bombs), was a pacifist, like Nobel. Einstein once said, “We cannot and should not slacken in our efforts to make the nations of the world and especially their governments aware of the unspeakable disaster they are certain to provoke unless they change their attitude towards each other and towards the task of shaping the future. We helped in creating this new weapon in order to prevent the enemies of mankind from achieving it ahead of us.”

Albert Einstein won the Nobel Prize in Physics, but did not receive his prize money; his ex-wife did. In 1919, as a stipulation of their divorce, Einstein agreed that the monetary award of any future Nobel Prize would be put in a trust for his sons, with his ex-wife, Mileva Marić, allowed to draw from the interest. Three years later, Einstein was awarded the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect. Though labeled the award for 1921, it was not given until 1922. In 1921, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences had decided no contribution to physics was worthy and held onto the award to designate at a later date. Neils Bohr won the actual 1922 Nobel Prize in Physics. Bohr and Einstein famously and publicly debated the underpinning principles of quantum mechanics, and are considered its founders.

Some Nobel prizes have been awarded for incorrect discoveries. A few of note: in 1926 the Nobel Prize in Medicine went to Johannes Fibiger for the discovery that roundworms cause cancer; they don’t. Julius Wagner-Jauregg, the first psychiatrist to be awarded a Nobel Prize in Medicine, won a year later for injecting patients with malaria. His hope was to treat syphilitic dementia. Thirty to forty percent of patients demonstrated marked improvement after this treatment, but of course, it also gave them malaria.

The Nobel Prize in Economics is not actually a Nobel Prize. It is the Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, established (and endowed) by the Sveriges Riksbank (Sweden’s Central Bank) in 1968.

While there is usually controversy over who wins, the Nobel Prize is widely viewed as one of the most prestigious awards in the world. The World Science Festival has had the pleasure of including over twenty Nobel Laureates in its programming over the years, and we’ve got our fingers crossed that this number will continue to rise. Stay tuned for news on who won, why, and why it matters


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