Nobel Nuggets, Part I

Alfred Nobel


You will hear, “Nobel established his peace prize out of guilt over his invention of dynamite. He wanted to atone.” Don’t believe them. Nobel was proud of his achievements in the area of explosives. Those explosives built what today we call “infrastructure.”

Also, Nobel was a very firm believer in deterrence — in the power of terrible weapons to prevent, even eliminate, war. In fact, he was too firm a believer in deterrence.

(There’s much more to say about these matters, obviously. I am serving up only nuggets here. A book is something else.)

He wrote his will — his final will — in 1895. In it, he arranges for his five prizes: in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace.

There are three surprising things about the will — surprising to me, at least.

First, there is no econ prize. That is not a Nobel prize — not a proper Nobel prize. It was created by the Central Bank of Sweden in 1968. It piggybacks on the Nobel prizes. Its formal name is “The Central Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel.”

Now, they won’t care too much if you call it a Nobel prize. I doubt they’ll correct you. But they themselves don’t call it that, because it’s not one.

The second surprising thing about Alfred Nobel’s will: The literature prize? It’s not meant to go for any literature. It’s meant to go for literature “in an ideal direction” — literature that uplifts or edifies or somehow improves mankind.

Let’s say the best writer in the world is a master of nihilism. Fine. He should win every literature prize there is — except the Nobel prize, which is intended for something else.

Last, the Nobel prizes, all of them, are supposed to go for work done “during the preceding year.” These are not supposed to be lifetime-achievement awards — golden handshakes at the end of golden careers. They are meant to sustain people as they go about their discoveries and whatnot.

Anyway . . .

Alfred Nobel asked the Norwegian parliament, the Storting, to elect a committee of five, to administer his peace prize. Such a committee has done so since 1901.

The will does not require that committee members be Norwegian. But they always have been, right from the beginning.

You could say this: The Norwegian people elect the parliament. The parliament elects the peace committee. Therefore, the Nobel Peace Prize is a reflection of the Norwegian people and their political culture.

Which, of course, is strongly social-democratic . . .

From 1901 to the present, 101 individuals have received the prize, and 20 organizations. One individual has received the peace prize plus another Nobel prize: That was Linus Pauling.

He won the chemistry prize in 1954 and the peace prize in 1962. (To be accurate, he won the peace prize for 1962 in 1963. Sometimes they “reserve” it for a year.)

Pauling also won the Lenin Peace Prize, from the Soviet government — but that’s another story.

More laureates have come from the U.S. than from any other country: 21. The next most laureate-rich nations are Great Britain and France, with eight each.

The youngest person to receive the prize? Tawakkul Karman of Yemen, one of the three winners last year. She was 32.

The oldest? Joseph Rotblat, who was 87 when he won in 1995. Rotblat was a British physicist and anti-nuclear activist — a man in the Pauling mold, really.

Ladies and gentlemen, I imagine we’ve had enough for today. See you tomorrow? To get my book direct from National Review, with a signature and an inscription, if you like, go here. If you’re interested in having me speak before your group, just let me know.

In any event, I’ll keep nugget-izing. (An ugly word to end on, but there you go.)


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