If you're a TV couch potato, you probably enjoy September when
the Emmy Awards are given out. For film buffs, perhaps it's the
Oscar month of March that absorbs your interest. Scientists,
however, get a little excited each October with the announcement of
the eagerly awaited Nobel Prize awards.
When Swedish dynamite inventor Alfred Nobel (1833-1896) lit his
final fuse on Dec. 10, 1896, he left about $4 million (the
equivalent of more than $170 million today) to be used for prizes
in chemistry, physics, physiology/medicine, literature and peace
(the economics prize was added later).
Nobel's fortune was made by inventing dynamite, which greatly
improved the safety of explosives. Prior to his discovery,
nitroglycerine was the explosive of choice, but being unstable its
production was difficult to control. It was such an explosion in
1864 that killed Nobel's brother, Emil, which prompted Nobel to try
mixing different substances with nitroglycerine to make it
He eventually combined it with silica (finely powdered sand) to
make a paste that could be shaped into stable rods and inserted
into drilling holes. In 1867, he patented this material, calling it
dynamite. The stuff could be wacked with a hammer, without
detonation, although it's not recommended to test this on a regular
basis. His invention was a boon (and a boom!) during the era of
rapidly growing industries and cities. As the man who discovered
how to reduce costs for blasting rock and drilling tunnels, Nobel
became very wealthy.
According to Nobel's wishes, the awards can only be shared by up
to three individuals, who must split the $1.25 million prize (this
year) in each category. In fact, three Americans won this year's
economics award, meaning they will each receive (after taxes) a
paltry $200,000, or thereabouts. Although, if they really were
outstanding money manipulators, they should be able to figure out
how to dodge some of those taxes.
This year, however, the science awards might be a little
confusing. For instance, you might think working with chemical
weapons would lead to an award in the area of chemistry.
But no. A global chemical weapons watchdog group, the
Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons based in the
Netherlands, won this year's peace prize, not chemistry.
What about the author of a book entitled "The Moons of Jupiter"
- surely the winner of a science prize, maybe physics?
Wrong again. This was the title of a book by Canadian author
Alice Munro who won the literature prize. It was a collection of
stories about the heartbreak and sadness of women aging, rather
than a tale of the some 60 celestial bodies orbiting the largest
planet in our solar system.
Then there was the team who developed a better understanding of
how cargo gets delivered to cells at the right place at the right
time. Alas, they don't award prizes to FedEx drivers who convey
items to prisons on a regular schedule. The cells are biological,
the cargo is molecules which when not delivered correctly can lead
to disease, and the award was for physiology/medicine.
And finally there was the physics award, given for a theory from
the 60s which was recently confirmed experimentally. The theory
says that it's the Higgs particle which explains how we all gain
mass. And to think I thought it was donuts.
Nick Thomas is a columnist for The Mountain Times, he has
written features and columns for more than 330 magazines and