The Mountain Times

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Along these lines: 
A Nobel month

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 safer.

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 newspapers.