Alfred Nobel

91

Alfred Nobel : biography

21 October 1833 – 10 December 1896

On his religious views, Nobel was an atheist.

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.’ His Nemesis, a prose tragedy in four acts about Beatrice Cenci, partly inspired by Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Cenci, was printed while he was dying. The entire stock except for three copies was destroyed immediately after his death, being regarded as scandalous and blasphemous. The first surviving edition (bilingual Swedish–Esperanto) was published in Sweden in 2003. The play has been translated to Slovenian via the Esperanto version and to French. In 2010 it was published in Russia as another bilingual (Russian–Esperanto) edition.

Nobel Prizes

In 1888 Alfred’s brother Ludvig died while visiting Cannes and a French newspaper erroneously published Alfred’s obituary. It condemned him for his invention of dynamite and is said to have brought about his decision to leave a better legacy after his death. The obituary stated, ‘ ("The merchant of death is dead") and went on to say, "Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday." Alfred was disappointed with what he read and concerned with how he would be remembered.

On 27 November 1895, at the Swedish-Norwegian Club in Paris, Nobel signed his last will and testament and set aside the bulk of his estate to establish the Nobel Prizes, to be awarded annually without distinction of nationality. After taxes and bequests to individuals, Nobel’s will allocated 94% of his total assets, 31,225,000 Swedish kronor, to establish the five Nobel Prizes. This converted to GBP £1,687,837 at the time At exchange rate of 18.5:1 in SEK:GBP In 2012, the capital is worth around SEK 3.1 billion (USD 472 million, EUR 337 million), which is almost twice the amount of the initial capital, taking inflation into account.

The first three of these prizes are awarded for eminence in physical science, in chemistry and in medical science or physiology; the fourth is for literary work "in an ideal direction" and the fifth prize is to be given to the person or society that renders the greatest service to the cause of international fraternity, in the suppression or reduction of standing armies, or in the establishment or furtherance of peace congresses. There is no Nobel prize awarded for great mathematical achievements, but there is the Abel Prize.

The formulation for the literary prize being given for a work "in an ideal direction" (‘ in Swedish), is cryptic and has caused much confusion. For many years, the Swedish Academy interpreted "ideal" as "idealistic" (‘) and used it as a reason not to give the prize to important but less Romantic authors, such as Henrik Ibsen and Leo Tolstoy. This interpretation has since been revised, and the prize has been awarded to, for example, Dario Fo and José Saramago, who do not belong to the camp of literary idealism.

There was room for interpretation by the bodies he had named for deciding on the physical sciences and chemistry prizes, given that he had not consulted them before making the will. In his one-page testament, he stipulated that the money go to discoveries or inventions in the physical sciences and to discoveries or improvements in chemistry. He had opened the door to technological awards, but had not left instructions on how to deal with the distinction between science and technology. Since the deciding bodies he had chosen were more concerned with the former, the prizes went to scientists more often than engineers, technicians or other inventors.

In 2001, Alfred Nobel’s great-grandnephew, Peter Nobel (b. 1931), asked the Bank of Sweden to differentiate its award to economists given "in Alfred Nobel’s memory" from the five other awards. This has caused much controversy whether the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel is actually a "Nobel Prize"