Lore of laureates

The Nobel Prize represents the peak of achievement in science. And yet, there are interesting stories and facts about the history and journey of this Prize over the years
Sir CV Raman at his Nobel Prize award ceremony in 1930.
Sir CV Raman at his Nobel Prize award ceremony in 1930.

The 2023 Nobel Prize was announced recently. The great strides made by the laureates in their respective disciplines are “for the greatest benefit of humankind.” This is the primary benchmark, as envisioned by the mind behind this Prize – Alfred Nobel, that has encouraged and rewarded generations of stalwarts from the realms of Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Peace, and Economics, in whose service the Prize is conferred.

Alfred Nobel was born on October 21, 1833, in Stockholm, into a family of engineers. As a chemist and engineer, he evolved into an arms manufacturer. Over the course of his lifetime, Nobel amassed a great fortune, most of which came from his 355 inventions, including the most influential – dynamite. While many of these inventions were used in wars of his time, the dynamite got him the title “Merchant of Death”. Nobel died aged 63, on December 10, 1896. His greatest, everlasting legacy, however, was the institution of the Prize named after him, which he himself willed just a year before his passing.

Ivan Pavlov
Ivan Pavlov

According to The Nobel Prize Organisation, Nobel had a vision for a better world, believing that people are capable of helping improve society through knowledge, science and humanism. On November 27, 1895, Nobel signed his third and last will. When it was opened and read after his death, its contents caused an international uproar, as the late inventor had left much of his wealth for the establishment of a prize.

An excerpt of the will reads: “All of my remaining realisable assets are to be disbursed as follows: the capital, converted to safe securities by my executors, is to constitute a fund, the interest on which is to be distributed annually as prizes to those who, during the preceding year, have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind.” The interest was to be divided into five equal parts and distributed as: “one part to the person who made the most important discovery or invention in the field of physics; one part to the person who made the most important chemical discovery or improvement; one part to the person who made the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine; one part to the person who, in the field of literature, produced the most outstanding work in an idealistic direction; and one part to the person who has done the most or best to advance fellowship among nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies, and the establishment and promotion of peace congresses”. It may be noted that the Nobel Prize in Economics came only in 1968.

Owing to the backlash that the will received, it was only in 1901 when the first prizes would be awarded. The focus here will be on prizes in science. In the first year, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen of Germany, who discovered X-rays, was awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics, alongside fellow German Emil von Behring, who got awarded the Prize for Physiology or Medicine for his work on serum therapy, and Jacobus Henricus van’t Hoff of the Netherlands, who won the Chemistry Nobel for his “Laws of Chemical Dynamics and Osmotic Pressure”.

Foremost of the sciences

Physics was the prize area that Alfred Nobel mentioned first in his will from 1895. At the end of the 19th century, many considered physics as the foremost of the sciences.

The next century saw physicists around the world reach some of the highest echelons of scientific achievement. Wars, new nations, and decades of inventiveness, catapulted human civilisation towards a science and technology-driven future, which was duly acknowledged by The Nobel Foundation. So far, 117 Nobel Prizes in Physics have been awarded since 1901. There are several interesting facts surrounding this Prize. For instance, Albert Einstein is widely known for his ‘Theory of Relativity’. However, he was conferred the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921, for “His services to theoretical physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect”.

Likewise, the youngest Nobel laureate in Physics was 25-year-old British physicist Lawrence Bragg, who was awarded the Prize together with his father William Henry Bragg in 1915, “For their services in the analysis of crystal structure by means of X-rays”.

They were, however, not the only father-son physicists to win the Prize. There were also Brits JJ Thomson (1906) and George Paget Thomson (1937); Danes Niels Bohr (1922) and Aage N Bohr (1975); and Swedes Manne Siegbahn (1924) and Kai M Siegbahn (1981).

In 2018, American Arthur Ashkin became the oldest Nobel laureate in Physics at 96 years old, for “His invention of ‘optical tweezers’ that grab particles, atoms, viruses and other living cells with their laser beam fingers”.

Meanwhile, John Bardeen is the only person to receive the Nobel in Physics twice (1956 and 1972), while Marie Curie was awarded the Nobel twice too, but once in Physics (1903) and once in Chemistry (1911). Marie shared her Physics Nobel with husband Pierre, for their “Investigations of radiation phenomena discovered by Becquerel”, while Henri Becquerel also shared their Prize, but for the “Discovery of Spontaneous Radioactivity”.

Among Indians, Sir CV Raman won the Prize in 1930, a feat repeated by his nephew Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar in 1983.

From his own work

Chemistry was the most important subject for Alfred Nobel’s own work. The development of his inventions, as well as their industrial processes, were based on chemical knowledge. Chemistry was the second prize area that Nobel mentioned in his will. Chemistry is a binding science, impacting its other interdisciplinary peers – be it physics, biology, or medicine – improving the understanding of the universe, matter and life. 

Since inception, 115 Prizes have been in Chemistry. Of them, the youngest laureate was Frédéric Joliot, who at 35 was awarded the Prize in 1935, together with his wife, Irene Joliot-Curie – the daughter of Marie Curie. The Joliot couple were acknowledged for discovering that radioactive atoms could be created artificially. The oldest laureate is
John B Goodenough, who was 97 when he was awarded the Chemistry Prize in 2019. He is also the oldest laureate to be awarded in all prize categories. In 2020, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry “For the Development of a method for genome editing” (through CRISPR). This was the first science Nobel Prize ever won by two women only.

Out of active interest

Alfred Nobel had an active interest in medical research. Through Karolinska Institutet, he came into contact with Swedish physiologist Jöns Johansson in 1890. Johansson worked in Nobel’s laboratory in Sevran, France, the same year. Physiology or medicine was the third prize area Nobel mentioned in his will.

The last century saw many health crises engulf the world. There were plagues, and outbreaks of a host epidemics including the Spanish Flu, and more recently SARS, Ebola, and Covid-19. The medical fraternity has been working tirelessly to make the world a healthier place. 114 Nobel Prizes in Physiology or Medicine have been awarded since 1901. In 1904, Russo-Soviet physiologist Ivan Pavlov was awarded the Nobel Prize for carrying out experiments on the digestive glands, as well as investigating the gastric function of dogs.

Canadian Frederick G Banting at 32 became the youngest laureate, when he was awarded in 1923, while the oldest was Peyton Rous, who at 87 shared the Prize with Charles Brenton Huggins in 1966, for “His discovery of tumour-inducing viruses”. The identification of blood groups in 1930 was one of the greatest achievements in modern medical research, for which its discoverer Karl Landsteiner won a Nobel the same year. Another important epoch was the discovery of the molecular structures of DNA. This single discovery not only helped medical science, but also crime detection and investigation. For this, James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins were awarded in 1962. The 1968 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine was shared by three scientists, Har Gobind Khorana, Marshall W Nirenberg, and Robert W Holley, for research that helped show how the genetic components of the cell nucleus control the synthesis of proteins.

In all, 425 Nobel Prizes were awarded between 1901 and 2023, between the fields of Physics, Chemistry, and Physiology or Medicine. The world needs its science more today than ever before, with the existential problems that we face. It’s Alfred Nobel’s 190th birth anniversary on October 21, and his vision for the “greatest benefit of humankind” lives on through his Prize.

(Source: nobelprize.org)

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