Thomas column: If it’s October, it’s Nobel Prize month
Columns share an author’s personal perspective.
When he died in 1896, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel left the bulk of his estate - over $3 million at the time - to create the Nobel Prizes in Chemistry, Physics, Physiology/Medicine, Literature, and Peace. First awarded in 1901, this year’s announcements will roll out Oct. 5-12.
A sixth award in Economics is technically not a Nobel Prize, as stated on the official website (www.nobelprize.org) and is known as the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, first awarded in 1969.
Nobel made his fortune after inventing dynamite, which greatly improved the safety of explosives. Prior to his discovery, highly unstable nitroglycerine was widely employed by the construction and mining industries, but its production and use were extremely dangerous.
When a devastating explosion killed Nobel’s brother Emil in 1864, the inventor began experimenting with ways to make nitroglycerine safer. He eventually discovered that the addition of kieselguhr (a finely powdered sand) created a paste that could be shaped into stable rods and inserted into drilling holes for blasting.
In 1867, he patented the material as dynamite and its widespread use contributed to the rapid growth of industries and cities by increasing safety and reducing costs for demolition and carving tunnels through mountains.
But with its military applications, Nobel’s invention was not without controversy and comments describing him as someone who became “rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before” influenced the decision to bequeath his wealth to benefit humanity through awards that recognized achievements in science and peace.
In addition to the honor, Nobel Prize recipients receive a monetary award (increased to $1.1 million in 2020) and a gold medal which, until 1980, was made from 23 carat (96%) gold and weighed approximately 200 grams meaning the medal’s gold value (in today’s market) would be around $12,000.
Not that anyone would covet a Nobel medal to reclaim the gold. Or would they?
One of my favorite stories concerning the fate of a particular medal was told to me in 2008 by Gustaf Arrhenius who passed away last year after a long and distinguished career as a scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
Arrhenius’s family were no strangers to the Nobel Prize. His grandfather, Svante, won the award for Chemistry in 1903. And his father-in-law, George de Hevesy, was a Hungarian chemist who worked in Denmark during World War II and received the 1943 prize.
As Arrhenius explained, German physicist and Nobel laureate (1914, physics) Max von Laue visited de Hevesy in Denmark one day, seeking his help. This was a dangerous time to request favors because the Nazis were marching across Europe killing people and stealing valuables such as artworks, jewelry and precious metals.
“Von Laue had smuggled (his medal) out of Germany while on a lecture trip to Denmark and gave it to de Hevesy for safekeeping,” Arrhenius told me. “That was highly illegal and severely punishable.”
To protect his friend (and himself) from possible arrest if the hidden medal was discovered when the Nazis occupied Denmark, de Hevesy placed it in a mixture of hydrochloric and nitric acids, a solution called aqua regia that dissolves gold. De Hevesy watched as the medal slowly disappeared and formed a green liquid (most likely due to traces of copper) which he stored on a shelf in his laboratory.
“The Germans raided the lab and stole some silver,” said Arrhenius. “But they did not pay attention to the bottle with the murky green solution!”
Arrhenius said von Laue was initially angry upon learning his precious medal had been dissolved. But after the war, the gold was recovered, recast into a Nobel medal, and returned to its original owner!
While that story is well-known in the science community, it’s a scenario that might sound almost too good to be true. Could the tale be apocryphal, I posed to Arrhenius?
“I have it from him directly and he did not make up stories,” Arrhenius told me, adding that the medal remained in the family until some years before our interview. “In connection with the repatriation of (de Hevesy’s) ashes to a cemetery in Budapest, the medal was given to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.”
While awards underscore the public recognition of an extraordinarily gifted individual’s success, prizes are rarely the motivation for the tireless work of scientists. This was concisely explained in a letter I received in 2000 from Fred Sanger, winner of two chemistry Nobel Prizes for his research with proteins and nucleic acids.
“The real pleasure was in the work itself,” Sanger wrote of his work. “Scientific research is like an exploration of a voyage of discovery (with) scientists working together as a team for the good of humanity.”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 850 newspapers and magazines. See www.getnickt.org.