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Stanford Report, October 3, 2001

One inventor's gift to mankind


Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Martin Luther King Jr., Ernest Hemingway. All of these great figures of the 20th century were recipients of a Nobel Prize -- arguably humanity's most prestigious award.

Most prize winners are announced the second week of October, making this a time of year when academics, authors and peace-makers at Stanford and thousands of other institutions begin -- very privately -- to ponder their chances of winning.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the five original Nobel prizes for peace, physiology or medicine, literature, physics and chemistry. A sixth prize in economics was established by the Bank of Sweden in 1968 to commemorate the bank's 300th anniversary.

Legend has it that Alfred Bernhard Nobel refused to establish a prize in mathematics in retribution for his wife's scandalous affair with a mathematician.

"That's simply not true," says Stig Hagström, director of the Stanford Learning Lab, who recently served on the committee that selects finalists for the physics prize.

"The fact is that Nobel never married," notes Hagström, "yet the story persists."

Alfred Nobel

The first prizes were handed out on Dec. 10, 1901 -- exactly five years after Nobel's death.

A wealthy entrepreneur and inventor, Nobel was born in Stockholm in 1833. At age 9, his family moved to Russia, where Alfred demonstrated a keen interest in his father's explosives business.

In the 1860s, Nobel carried out a series of experiments with nitroglycerine -- a highly unstable compound. One explosion in 1864 killed several people, including his brother, which led Stockholm officials to ban Nobel from further experiments within the city limits.

Undaunted, Nobel moved his operations to a barge anchored in the middle of a nearby lake, and soon figured out that nitroglycerin could be made safe to handle by combining it with silica -- a compound he named dynamite, which he then manufactured and sold worldwide. Constantly traveling from factory to factory, Nobel was dubbed "the world's richest vagabond" by French author Victor Hugo.

"Contentment is the only real wealth," Nobel once said, which may explain his unprecedented decision to will the bulk of his vast estate for the establishment of annual prizes to those who "have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind."

Nobel died of a heart attack at his home in San Remo, Italy, on Dec. 10, 1896, at age 63.

Last will

In his will, Nobel designated responsibility for awarding the prizes to four institutions -- three in Sweden and one in Norway.

The Stockholm-based Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awards the prizes in physics, chemistry and -- since 1969 -- in economic sciences. The prize in literature is awarded by another institution called the Swedish Academy, and the medicine or physiology prize is conferred by the Karolinska Institute -- Sweden's leading medical school.

The peace prize is chosen by the Oslo-based Norwegian Nobel Committee -- a five-member panel selected by the Norwegian parliament.

Each prize is worth 10 million Swedish crowns -- about $933,000.

"The Nobel prizes were set up with 19th-century definitions," notes Hagström. "Physics, for example, covers so many areas today, including solid-state physics, astrophysics, astronomy and even biology."

Why not expand the number of awards to include new categories such as bioscience or information technology?

"Nobel's will governs the prizes," Hagström explains. "To make changes is a difficult, elaborate process."

Born and educated in Sweden, Hagström has been a professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford since 1987.

"I was away from Stanford from 1992 to 1998 when I became chancellor of the Swedish university system," he recalls. "That's when I was appointed by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences to serve a three-year term on the committee for the Nobel physics prize."

Choosing a winner

The Nobel physics committee consists of seven members who meet about once a month to consider nominees.

"Members of the Royal Academy can submit nominations," says Hagström. "So can Nobel laureates and all professors of physics throughout Scandinavia -- Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland."

The committee also sends out nominating forms to approximately 1,000 other physicists around the world.

"If you nominate yourself, you are automatically disqualified," warns Hagström. "There are also people who push themselves strongly, but in the long run that defeats them."

The deadline for submitting nominations is Jan. 31, and finalists are usually chosen by the end of September. No more than three finalists can be chosen in a single year. Records of committee deliberations are kept secret for 50 years.

Winners of the physics prize will be announced by the Royal Academy on Oct. 9. The king of Sweden will present each laureate a diploma and a medal at a special ceremony in Stockholm on Dec. 10.

California connection

California is said to have the world's largest concentration of Nobel laureates -- nearly 100, many of whom have ties to Stanford.

What accounts for this remarkable track record?

"My answer is that California in particular is very good in leadership -- exploring the unknown, going out into the jungle, having the courage to know that you'll fail most of the time," observes Hagström. "Compare that with my native country. Sweden is good in management, but Swedish society does not accept failures the way we do here."

Stanford, too, is preeminent in leadership, Hagström maintains.

"The university is like the Stanford Band -- you can never know what's going to happen, but if they wanted to, they could march in step," he says. "The fact is that creativity blossoms here. Everyone is allowed to do what they think is interesting. I hope Stanford will continue its record of collecting Nobel Prize winners, and that I will see many Stanford people Dec. 10 in Stockholm."