The legacy of Alfred Nobel

Champagne corks will pop, phones will ring wildly, and once obscure academics will suddenly find themselves the object of a two-day media frenzy.
The brain behind the Noble Prize.
The brain behind the Noble Prize.

Champagne corks will pop, phones will ring wildly, and once obscure academics will suddenly find themselves the object of a two-day media frenzy.

That is how The Time Magazine summarised how it is when the calls go out from Stockholm for the winners of the most prestigious and arguably the richest prize in the world, the Nobel Prize.

It all began in 1896, when the will of Alfred Nobel, a Swedish chemist, engineer, innovator, armaments manufacturer and the inventor of dynamite, a powerful explosive, was read out.

It went, “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 on mankind.”

With those words, the man who had read his own obituary after his brother’s death had erroneously been thought to be his own, set aside the bulk of his vast fortune to “awarding the prizes (with) no consideration be given to the nationality of the candidates, but that the most worthy shall receive the prize.”

It was obvious that that erroneous obituary titled: “The merchant of death is dead” and going on to say, “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.”, brought him closer to his decision to use his proposed prizes to show the world that he was not proud of the fact that his own invention had been used in wars by men against men.

According to the, Alfred Nobel was born in Stockholm, the capital of Sweden, at a time when his father Immanuel Nobel had gone bankrupt and decided to move to St. Petersburg, Russia, where he established himself again and managed to move his family over to Russia to live with him.

In St. Petersburg, Alfred was given first class education by private teachers which included natural sciences, languages and literature.

By the age of 17 Alfred Nobel was fluent in Swedish, Russian, French, English and German. His primary interests were in English literature and poetry as well as in chemistry and physics.

Alfred’s father, who wanted his sons to join his enterprise as engineers, disliked Alfred’s interest in poetry and found his son rather introverted.

In order to widen Alfred’s horizons, his father sent him abroad for further training in chemical engineering.

Alfred further pursued his interest in inventing a safer use for nitroglycerine in the construction industry and eventually invented dynamite, which, together with other inventions, drastically reduced the cost of blasting rock, drilling tunnels, building canals and many other forms of construction work.

His official biography states that Alfred Nobel’s greatness lay in his ability to combine the penetrating mind of the scientist and inventor with the forward-looking dynamism of the industrialist.

Nobel was very interested in social and peace-related issues and held what were considered radical views in his era. He had a great interest in literature and wrote his own poetry and dramatic works.

According to Wikipedia, Sri Kantha has suggested that ‘ the one personal trait of Nobel that helped him to sharpen his creativity include his talent for information access, via his multi-lingual skills.

Despite the lack of formal secondary and tertiary level education, Nobel gained proficiency in six languages, Swedish, French, Russian, English, German and Italian. He also developed literary skills to write poetry in English.’

The inventor of dynamite held 355 patents in several countries. As an entrepreneur, Nobel was unbeatable in his time. ““Home is where I work, and I work everywhere,”  he once said.

In October every year since 1901, the world waits in bated breath for the announcements of the year’s Nobel Prizes to be awarded for achievements in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and for peace.

The Nobel Prize is an international award administered by the Nobel Foundation in Stockholm, Sweden. In 1968, Sveriges Riksbank established The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in memory of Alfred Nobel, founder of the Nobel Prize.

Each prize consists of a medal, personal diploma, and a cash award of 10 million Swedish Kronor which is equivalent to US$ 1.5 million.

Some of the previous winners from Africa are Nelson Mandela (Peace) in 1993 for his fight against apartheid; Wangari Maathai (Peace) in 1994, for her contribution to sustainable development and democracy; and Wole Soyinka in 1986 for literature.

Mandela, on hearing the news of the Nobel announcement said, “I have never cared very much for personal prizes. A man does not become a freedom fighter in the hope of winning awards, but when I was notified that I had won the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize jointly with Mr. De Klerk, I was deeply moved.”

Paul Krugman, a New York Times op-ed columnist and professor of Economics and International Affairs at Princeton University left only eight words on his blog on hearing that he had won the 2008 Nobel Prize for economics, “a funny thing happened to me this morning…”

The Nobel Laureates attend the Nobel award ceremony in Stockholm on 10 December when they receive the Nobel Prize Medal, Nobel Prize Diploma and document confirming the Nobel Prize amount from King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden.

In Oslo, the Nobel Peace Prize Laureates receive their Nobel Peace Prize from the Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee in the presence of King Harold V of Norway. An important part is the presentation of the Nobel Lectures by the Nobel Laureates.


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