DeVos: Nobel Prize is a blast |

DeVos: Nobel Prize is a blast

Jon DeVos
Staff Photo |

The Nobel Prizes were awarded last month. Every year the best and brightest in the fields of Peace, Physics, Physiology, Medicine, Literature and Economics, are chosen for this honor. The Nobel Prize is the big enchilada when it comes to respect. You get a big fancy gold medal and a million euros. Some prizes carry more money but none carry more prestige.

The prizes are the legacy of Alfred Nobel who was a prolific inventor holding over 350 patents. He was also a reclusive, self-proclaimed ugly guy, destined to be lonely.

During the Crimean War, Alfred’s father, Immanuel Nobel, made torpedoes for the Russians. By 1854, he’d made and lost several fortunes before striking it big in Caspian Sea oil. Immanuel manufactured nitroglycerine on the side. Nitroglycerine has the distressing property of blowing up sometimes when you’d rather it didn’t. His scientists were searching for a stable form when one of Alfred’s brothers was killed in a factory explosion. Shortly afterwards, Alfred invented dynamite, bringing immense explosive power finally under control.

By the time Alfred turned 40, he was one of the wealthiest and unhappiest men in the world. Alfred, according to Alfred, was butt-ugly, and despite dripping with money, tragically unsuccessful with women. He trolled the French equivalent of Craigslist and hired an Austrian antiwar activist named Bertha von Suttner. She stayed with him only a week but her pacifist influence lasted a lifetime and changed him forever.

Alfred grew distraught, living alone and obsessing over his ugliness. He agonized over the fact that dynamite had been taken up by the military and quickly weaponized. He became bitter and withdrew to a recluse life in Paris.

His world took a terrible turn in 1888, when he opened the newspaper to find his own obituary. The paper had mistaken his brother, Ludwig, for Alfred. The article described him as “the Merchant of Death”, claiming Nobel’s fortune came from “… killing more people than ever before in the shortest time possible.” This curious event deepened his depression, filling him with self-hatred for his inadvertent role.

Shortly before he did pass away in 1895, he made his family more miserable than he was by giving away his entire fortune, almost a quarter billion in today’s coin, to science. He announced, “Inherited wealth is a misfortune which merely serves to dull man’s faculties,” momentarily forgetting, apparently, his own sizeable inheritance.

The prizes have sometimes missed their mark. In 1905, Robert Koch was given the prize for a tuberculosis vaccine. Six months later, Koch’s patients all died and he, and the Nobel judges, were condemned as idiots.

In 1918, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Fritz Haber who went on to develop poison gasses for World War I warfare.

Carl von Ossietzky won the 1936 Nobel Peace Prize for exposing German rearmament. Adolf Hitler promptly made it a crime to receive a Nobel Prize, threw Ossietzky into a concentration camp and he was never mentioned in the German press.

In 1948, Paul Muller won the prize in chemistry for putting DDT and bugs together. DDT had been around for 70 years when Muller discovered it was a great insecticide. It was so effective that in 1972, it was banned for being too effective after it brought the bald eagle to the edge of extinction.

The Nobel Prize, despite the occasional foible, has endured for 113 years and remains the pinnacle of prestige.

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