The Nobel Prize was in the news recently because the prize money was reduced by 15 percent in order to preserve the endowment that funds the annual award.
The limit to my knowledge about the Nobel Prize is: it is awarded to amazing people and it is the ultimate honor. Who knew that they paid you to take it – slightly more than a million dollars!
But the story is much more interesting than that.
Alfred Nobel was a bright young man with little means, some education in chemistry and engineering, and an eye for the future. He bought a Swedish iron factory and converted it into a munitions manufacturing plant; kind of the weapons of mass destruction of the pre-World War I era.
That turned out to be a very good investment. Nobel was one of those ambitious types who couldn’t settle for just making something; he had to make it better. He invented dynamite, which was somewhat of a boon for his munitions factory. He also inverted some other explosives and about 300 other things. Nobel was one busy guy.
Business was good and he amassed quite the fortune (almost $200 million), which in 1900 was really a lot of money.
Life went on and he made better bombs, played with his chemistry set, patented the occasional new formula and thought life was good.
It was good until one day he had something of a “Dicken’s Moment.”
It came to his attention that a French newspaper had mistakenly printed his obituary. And he wasn’t even sick! Even worse than that, they referred to him as “the Merchant of Death.” This surprised and upset Mr. Alfred Nobel, who saw himself as a decent human being despite the munitions factory and inventing better explosives and such.
Ghostly visit or not, Nobel very quietly looked for a way to balance the scales. He came upon the idea to use his wealth to create a series of prizes. The world would be searched each year for the people that were the greatest benefit to mankind.
He decided the scientific fields of chemistry, physics and physiology (medicine) were to be encouraged. He also thought great benefit could come through peace (Nobel Peace Prize) and literature. One more category was added in 1969 to the original five: economic science.
The first anyone heard of his “big idea” was in the reading of his will. He outlined the entire Nobel Prize program and left 94 percent of his considerable wealth to the project. Everyone was shocked, a few relatives were disappointed, and a two-year fight over the money ensued.
Alfred Nobel’s wishes eventually prevailed, and the Nobel Prize was started. Each year about 3,000 nomination requests are sent to major thinkers in the scientific and cultural community. These nominations are intellectually vetted and selected through a series of secret votes. The prizes are awarded on Dec. 10, which was Alfred Nobel’s birthday.
Alfred Nobel was able to posthumously change the focus of his life. His name is known around the world and his program has clearly benefited mankind. I would call that redemption.
As always, take care.