Nobel frenzy is sweeping Sweden and the rest of the world. The first week of October sees the Nobel Prize winners revealed one by one. For many years the winners have received the same prize amount, SEK 10 million, in return for their contributions to mankind.
Chemistry Laureate Roderick MacKinnon bows after receiving his Nobel Prize from Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf at the Award Ceremony, December 10, 2003. Photo: Henrik Montgomery / Pressens Bild
Today the best-known prize in the world has a magic that certainly not even its originator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel (1833-1896), could have imagined when he wrote his will in 1895.
Perhaps Nobel would be horrified by the fuss and global media circus his prizes now awaken every autumn, since he himself was a tirelessly working and reserved man. With his donation, he mainly wanted to reward contributions that “have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.”
Nobel was born in Stockholm in 1833. When he was nine years old, the family moved to St. Petersburg, Russia. His father, Immanuel, was an inventor and had built up a successful company there.
Immanuel’s sons followed in his footsteps. Nobel’s brothers developed oil wells in Baku (now in Azerbaijan) and eventually dominated the European oil industry, while he became one of the world’s most creative inventors and industrialists.
In the 1860s he returned to Sweden and continued his experiments. Sometimes at a very high price, as in 1864 when his brother Emil and several other associates died in an explosion in Stockholm. In 1866 Nobel finally succeeded in inventing a powerful explosive that could be handled without excessive risk. He himself named this new invention dynamite.
Dynamite made him both famous and wealthy, but Nobel did not rest. He built up a corporate empire in Sweden and more than 20 other countries and continued with his laboratory experiments. When he died in 1896, he owned 355 different patents. Among other things, he also succeeded in making artificial silk.
Alfred Nobel (1833-1896), the inventor of dynamite, used his fortune to finance the Nobel Prize. With his donation he mainly wanted to reward contributions that “have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” Photo: Gösta Florman / The Royal Library
“Europe’s richest vagabond”
Nobel was both typical and atypical of his age. He was a scientific optimist who participated in the 19th-century technical revolution, and an internationalist at the same time that nationalism and patriotism were growing stronger in Europe. Nobel regarded himself as a world citizen, and French author Victor Hugo once described him as “Europe’s richest vagabond.” He spoke five languages fluently: Swedish, Russian, French, German and English. He loved literature and was an author of literary works that stayed in a desk drawer.
During the final years of his life, Nobel lived in France and Italy. He died on December 10, 1896, in the Italian city of San Remo. Throughout his life, Nobel remained unmarried and childless. His relatives were thus waiting to share his legacy.
But to everyone’s surprise, aside from small bequests, Nobel willed his entire realizable estate to a fund that has been known since 1900 as the Nobel Foundation. His donation amounted to nearly SEK 32 million in the Swedish kronor of that time. According to Nobel’s wishes, the return on this fund should be distributed in the form of annual prizes to those who “have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind” in the fields of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace.
In principle, the Nobel Prizes can be awarded to anyone in the world, a sensational concept in the late 19th century. Members of Nobel’s family protested and tried to have the will declared invalid. But exactly five years after his death, on December 10, 1901, the first Nobel Prize Award Ceremonies took place in Stockholm and in Oslo, capital of Norway. When Nobel wrote his will, Sweden and Norway were linked by a union, which was dissolved in 1905. He thus decided that the Peace Prize would be awarded in Oslo and the other four prizes in Stockholm.
After the problems of its first years, the reputation of the Nobel Prize quickly grew. Today the names of all Nobel prizewinners (or laureates) are revealed every October, about two months before the award ceremony on December 10. The Nobel Prizes in Physics and Chemistry are awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm. Laureates in Physiology or Medicine are selected by Karolinska Institutet, a medical university in Stockholm. The Swedish Academy is responsible for the Literature Prize, and the Peace Prize is awarded by the Nobel Committee of the Norwegian parliament (Storting) in Oslo.
The Economics Prize is not a “real” Nobel Prize, but was established in 1968 by the Bank of Sweden (Sveriges Riksbank) in memory of Alfred Nobel. It is awarded together with the other prizes.
Global media circus
In October, while a selected group is rejoicing at their prizes, screening for the next year’s prizewinners is already underway. In September, the task of nominating conceivable candidates for the following year begins. Learned academies and universities in Sweden and abroad, as well as earlier prizewinners, are entitled to submit proposals. Those who nominate themselves are disqualified, however. As a rule, between 200 and 350 candidates are nominated for each Nobel Prize. For the Peace Prize, the number of nominations is generally below 200.
In world media, the prize announcements in October are a bigger event than the Nobel Festivities on December 10. Journalists around the world write detailed presentations of the prizewinners and their contributions.
“Nobel is the strongest name we have,” says one Swedish diplomat with experience of several major postings around the world. Today, interest in Nobel and his prize donation is considerably larger than it was in 1901. The Nobel Foundation’s website, which includes presentations of the prizewinners and all Nobel lectures since 1901, had 18 million visits in 2004. The world press queues up for interviews when each prizewinner is announced. The British-based BBC television network tapes a roundtable discussion on major interdisciplinary issues featuring all or most of the prizewinners during the Nobel Week in December.
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