The Corner

A (Futile) Whack at a Myth

Have had a couple of letters today, concerning Alfred Nobel. (Am doing a weeklong series of “Nobel Nuggets,” of which Part III is the current.) Here’s the question: Didn’t a famous mathematician have an affair with Nobel’s wife? Isn’t that why there’s no Nobel prize for mathematics?

This is often said, but it’s untrue. You can’t kill off this myth. Sort of amazing. It endures generation after generation. Every year, a new crop of math students is taught this myth. “Well, you know why Nobel left us out of his prizes, don’t you? Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk.”

I think of John Ashcroft, that Pentecostalist prude, who covered up nude statues in the Justice Department. Never happened, of course. But there’s this great desire to believe.

Anyway, Nobel was “unlucky in love,” as they say — he never married. With no family to leave his fortune to, he established his prizes. To be sure, he cared for various relatives, household employees, and so on. Nobel was one of the most generous of men (part of his greatness). But he left the bulk of his estate to the prizes: in physics, chemistry, “physiology or medicine,” literature, and peace.

No econ prize? Right. I discussed this in Part I (of those “nuggets”). The econ prize was an add-on by the Central Bank of Sweden in the late 1960s, about 70 years after Nobel’s death. The bank was celebrating its 300th anniversary. The econ prize is not really a Nobel prize, but they don’t mind if you mistake it for one.

There are many areas of discipline under the sun, and you can’t will prizes in all of them. Nobel decided on five — three scientific prizes, one literary, and one kind of gauzy. If you want to hit the jackpot in mathematics, you win the Fields Medal. (I once won a medal in a field day. Potato-sack race, I think.)

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