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The noblest of them all

The Nobel prizes for 2016 will be announced this month, carrying on the decree by Alfred Nobel over a century ago. Here are some interesting stories and facts about the famous Nobels

02nd October 2016, 12:00 Hrs

Swedish inventor and scholar Alfred Nobel, who made a vast fortune from his invention of dynamite in 1866, ordered the creation of the famous Nobel prizes in his will. His 1895 testament stipulated his fortune was to be placed in a fund destined to honour "those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind". He died a year later in San Remo, Italy.

Nobel had decreed the bulk of his estate should be invested in "safe securities" and, as a result, some 31.5 million Swedish kronor, the equivalent today of about 1.7 billion Swedish kronor (197 million euros), were used to create the Nobel Foundation. The Karolinska Institute awards the medicine prize, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awards the peace prize, the Swedish Academy handles literature, while the Royal Academy of Sciences has responsibility for physics, chemistry and economics.

The prizes will be announced on different days in October.

• October 3 - Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

• October 4 - Nobel Prize in Physics

• October 5 - Nobel Prize in Chemistry

• October 7 - Nobel Peace Prize

• October 10 - The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel

• October 13 - Nobel Prize in Literature


Five things

Nobel the poet

Nobel went down in history as the inventor of dynamite, but he was keen on English poetry and a fan of Shelley and Byron. He wrote poetry his entire life, sometimes in his native Swedish but mostly in the Bard's language. In a letter to a friend, he wrote: "I have not the slightest pretension to call my verses poetry; I write now and then for no other purpose than to relieve depression, or to improve my English." In 1862, at the age of 29 and questioning his literary talent, he sent a letter to a young woman, in French: "Physics is my field, not writing."

A family affair

Since the Nobel prizes were first awarded in 1901, six children have followed in the footsteps of their parents, becoming Nobel laureates themselves. A seventh won the award jointly with his father in 1915 at the tender age -- in Nobel terms -- of 25. The Curie family alone clocked up a grand total of five awards: two to Marie Curie, who first won the physics prize in 1903 with her husband Pierre and Henri Becquerel, and then the chemistry distinction in 1911. Irene, her eldest child, was awarded the chemistry Nobel with her husband Pierre Joliot in 1935. Irene's younger sister, Eva Curie, married Henry Richardson Labouisse, who, as head of UNICEF, won the Nobel peace prize in 1965. Other couples have also won. In 1974, Sweden's Gunnar Myrdal won the economics prize, eight years later his wife Alva won the peace prize.

In absentia

Since 1901, five peace laureates have been unable to attend the prize ceremony in Oslo: in 1936, German journalist and pacifist Carl Von Ossietzky was detained in a Nazi concentration camp; in 2010, Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was in prison. His chair remained empty, where the prize was placed; in 1975, Russian dissident Andrei Sakharov was represented by his wife Elena Bonner; in 1983, Polish union leader Lech Walesa declined the invitation to come to Oslo for fear he would not be allowed back into Poland; Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest when she won the prize in 1991. Given permission by the junta to travel, she abstained for the same reason as Walesa.


Why is there no Nobel prize for mathematics? In the 1980s, researchers were able to put to rest longstanding rumours that Alfred Nobel's lover had had an affair with mathematician Magnus Gosta Mittag-Leffler. There's nothing to support the rumour, and everything suggests otherwise. So why is there no prize? There are two likely explanations: In 1895, when Nobel wrote his will, a maths prize already existed in Sweden and he saw no need for a second one. Also, at the beginning of the 20th century, applied sciences were in public and scientific favour, and mathematics' contribution to humanity was not obvious.

Posthumous awards

The statutes of the Nobel Foundation stipulate since 1974 that the award may not be given posthumously, but a person may be awarded the honour if he or she dies between the time of the announcement in October and the formal prize ceremony in December. Before the change, only two people had won a Nobel posthumously. One of them was Dag Hammarskjold, the Swedish secretary general of the United Nations who died in a plane crash in 1961 and received the Nobel Peace Prize later the same year. And in 1931, the Nobel prize in literature was awarded posthumously to another Swede, Erik Axel Karlfeldt. In 2011, the medicine prize committee honoured Ralph Steinman of Canada, unaware that he had passed away just three days before its announcement. The foundation decided nonetheless to give him the prize.

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