Why is there no Nobel in Mathematics?

Posted on Tuesday, October 17th, 2014 by Chethana Anand

When I was recently going through this year’s list of Nobel laureates, a doubt crept into my mind as to why Nobel Prize is not awarded to mathematicians. After asking around for a while and hitting dead ends multiple number of times, finally, Google came to my rescue.

The reason there is no ‘Nobel Prize’ for Mathematics is that Alfred Nobel’s wife (or mistress or fiancée as the popular tale goes) had an affair with a famed mathematics professor (most popular name being the famed Swedish mathematician Gosta Mittag-Leffler). So the green eyed monster in him woke up and he, in fit of rage, stipulated in his will that there should not be a Nobel prize for Mathematics for the fear that the said famed Mathematics professor might walk away with a Nobel prize! While I absolutely love repeating this juicy story, my faith in it was somewhat shaken when I found out that Nobel had never married!

Nobel was a bachelor, though he did propose to one woman, Alexandra, who turned him down. He later had a relationship with his secretary Bertha Kinsky, which ended with her leaving him to marry her former lover. In this case Nobel and Kinsky remained close friends for the rest of his life with no hint of remorse or jealousy. The third love of his life was Sophie Hess, with whom he maintained a relationship for around 18 years but never married. Apart from these women there is no historical record of him having any other significant love affairs.

Another school of thought suggests that Mittag-Leffler, in the process of accumulating his own considerable wealth, antagonized Nobel. Nobel, afraid that Mittag-Leffler, the leading Swedish mathematician at that time, might win a Nobel prize in mathematics, and hence refused to institute such a prize.

Both versions of the myth were debunked when it was pointed out that Mittag-Leffler and Nobel had almost no relation to each other; Nobel emigrated from Sweden in 1865 when Mittag-Leffler was a student and rarely returned to visit. The more mundane reasoning behind this is that the thought for a Nobel Prize in mathematics never crossed Nobel’s mind. He simply wasn’t interested in the subject and didn’t grasp the practical benefits to the world of advanced mathematics.

Perhaps, Nobel who himself was an ardent inventor, was not particularly interested in mathematics or theoretical science. His will speaks of prizes for those ``inventions or discoveries'' of greatest practical benefit to mankind. (Probably as a gross misinterpretation of this language, the Nobel for physics has been awarded for experimental work much more often than for advances in theory). So he stuck to those subjects whose benefits to mankind he understood well and, perhaps, was more interested in: Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Literature, and Peace.

Nobel did a lot of work in the fields of Physics and Chemistry and loved literature. He also envisioned the benefit of advancements in the field of medicine. Significant records suggest that the peace prize might have been suggested by his former lover and secretary Bertha Kinsky, who went on to win the award in 1905. The peace prize might also have been a way to fix his image of being an abetter to destruction (He was the inventor of dynamite).

Another, more accepted account of why Nobel actually came up with the idea of donating nearly all of his wealth (He ended up donating 94% of his fortune) is an interesting one. His brother Ludvig, died in 1888 and a French newspaper mistakenly reported the event as the death of Alfred Nobel and published: “The merchant of death is dead”. The obituary stated: “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill people faster than ever, passed away yesterday”. This deeply hurt Nobel who began thinking on getting rid of the ‘Blood stained money’. And the Nobel Prizes were born.

While the above theory is backed by historical records, an alternative theory is sometimes suggested, though it breeds merely off speculation. At the time, there already existed a major mathematical award that was actually established at the behest of Mittag-Leffler himself. Mittag-leffler persuaded King Oscar II to create an endowment prize for various mathematicians throughout Europe. Thus Nobel may have simply not wanted to compete with that established award with his own. Rather, he tried to focus his funds on fields that interested him and didn’t already have a prestigious awards attached.

Having said all this, the story involving some rivalry over a woman is obviously much more amusing and would probably awaken a class full of sleepy heads, which is also why it would continue to be repeated!

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