Nobel’s legacy

Nobel’s legacy

 What happens on 10 December? The date marks the death of Alfred Nobel, the 19th century industrialist who instituted five prizes “to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind” – in the fields of chemistry, physics, medicine, literature and the pursuit of peace. Since 1901, the first four prizes have been handed out on that date by the Swedish monarch before the “feast of feasts”, a royal gala banquet in Stockholm; in 1969, another prize, in economics, was added to them in Nobel’s memory to celebrate the 300th birthday of the Swedish central bank. On the same day, the peace prize is awarded in Oslo at a rather less grand celebration. 

Who was Alfred Nobel? He was a vastly successful chemist, engineer and businessman. Born into poverty in Stockholm in 1833, Nobel worked to develop a safe explosive from the newly invented nitroglycerine, which was powerful but unstable: an accident killed his brother Emil. But by adding an inert sand, Nobel made it stable and easy to handle. He initially wanted to call this “Nobel’s Safety Powder” but in the end patented it as dynamite in 1867; it became a standard technology in mining and engineering. Nobel also invented the blasting cap and other explosives such as gelignite, and established armaments factories; he owned the armaments company Bofors, which exists to this day. A brilliant but lonely and complex man, Nobel was a literature-loving pacifist. The story goes that he was much affected by a French obituary of himself, published in error when his brother Ludvig died, with the headline: “The merchant of death is dead.” At any rate, his will ensured that after his death in 1896, he would leave a rich legacy. 

What did his will stipulate? To his family’s horror, Nobel left 31 million Swedish kronor, more than 90% of his vast fortune, to set up the prizes. His handwritten will defined a precise system. The prize for medicine would be decided by a committee appointed by the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm; Sweden’s Royal Academy of Sciences would do the same for chemistry and physics, and the Swedish Academy for literature. The peace prize would be decided by a committee appointed by Norway’s parliament (Norway even then had a reputation for peacekeeping). The prizes were to be given to the most deserving candidate, “whether or not they are Scandinavian”. His executors set up the Nobel Foundation to manage his fortune and the prizes. They were first awarded in 1901, to great excitement around the world: the prizes’ global nature, the prize money and the lavish festivities soon made them the world’s most prestigious awards. 

What festivities are involved? Normally, laureates visit Stockholm for a full week, and are put up in the Grand Hôtel, across from the Royal Palace. The schedule is filled with museum visits, press conferences, embassy events, panel talks and, most importantly, the Nobel lectures. The foundation stipulates that laureates must hold a free public lecture while in Stockholm. They may also have an early-morning visit from a group of white-clad women celebrating Saint Lucy’s Day by carrying candles, singing, and serving saffron buns. This used to be a surprise, but legend has it that one guest expired when the “angels” entered their bedroom, so it was made optional. On Nobel Day itself, 1,500 people gather in the city’s Concert Hall in the afternoon, where winners receive an 18-carat gold medal and a diploma from King Carl XVI Gustaf. Today, the prize money is ten million Swedish kronor per subject, about £883,000, which is shared if the prize is jointly won. 

Is that the end of the festivities? No: it is followed by the “Nobelfesten”, the white-tie banquet in the Blue Hall in Stockholm City Hall, where 1,300 guests enjoy or endure a four-hour seated dinner, interspersed by speeches, entertainment and elaborate Scandinavian dishes (moose, reindeer, cloudberries and candlelit ice cream bombes are favourites). In Sweden, the Nobelfesten is broadcast in its entirety. TV cameras hover over ladies’ décolletées; table manners and choice of gala dress are commented on by presenters, while experts try to lip-read conversations. Sadly, all this was replaced this year by brief ceremonies in the laureates’ home countries. 

How well regarded are the prizes? Generally, the Nobel’s record in chemistry, physics and medicine is impressive. Nobel Prizes are, for better or for worse, the epitome of scientific glory. Winners are transformed into public figures. For a few weeks every year, the newspapers are forced to grapple with G-protein receptors or black hole formation. But the committees have failed on many occasions. Dmitri Mendeleev, the deviser of the periodic table, never won a prize. Nor did the discoverers of nuclear fission. The Nobel was late to acknowledge Einstein, in 1921. More recently, it has been argued that limiting prizes to three individuals fails to recognise the way that science is actually done today, in large international research groups. 

What about the other prizes? The economics, and particularly the literature and peace prizes, have long been very controversial. The peace prize failed to recognise Gandhi, but rewarded Henry Kissinger and North Vietnam’s Le Ðuc Tho while their nations were still at war. Last year’s winner, Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed, is currently waging a civil war. In literature, the likes of Joyce, Tolstoy, Ibsen and Zola have all been overlooked. An overarching criticism of Nobel is that the committees have picked too many Europeans and Americans. More than a third of all laureates are Americans; as many literature prizes have been given to Swedes as to Asians. For all its wonders, the Nobel has rewarded a particular version of genius: solitary, male and Western, and after a century of glory, it may struggle in the future.