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The Legacy of Alfred Nobel
Elegant Connections in Physics
The Legacy of Alfred Nobel
Dwight E. Neuenschwander, Southern Nazarene University
When you are selected to win the Nobel Prize in Physics, you are informed (so I have heard) by a telephone call from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The following December in Stockholm, before a distinguished audience, you are presented the Nobel Prize medal by the king of Sweden. After the grand ceremony the laureates and dignitaries repair to a great hall for a formal banquet. You make an acceptance speech, which is published.
Of course, most of us will never win a Nobel Prize. But no matter who wins, all are uplifted because, as I have noted in another context, it takes three people to make music: the composer, the performer, and the appreciator. As physicists we are well-informed appreciators.1 Nobel Prizes recognize visionary individuals, but they also commemorate the journey of a community.
Amid the international publicity surrounding the annual Nobel Prize announcements, little is said about the person behind them: Alfred Nobel (1833–1896), a 19th-century Swedish chemist, engineer, and industrialist. Like all interesting human beings, his life contained ironies and inconsistencies. He never earned a university degree but was a gifted inventor and chemist, highly skilled in science and engineering, well read and fluent in five languages. He lived in cosmopolitan cities but preferred solitude. As an entrepreneur, he managed multinational technology corporations but found time to write novels and poetry. His business was the manufacture of explosives and armaments, but he actively supported pacifism. He amassed great wealth but left almost all of it to people he would never meet.
Alfred Nobel was born in Sweden in 1833, into a family of engineers.2 In 1838 his father, Immanuel Nobel, immigrated to St. Petersburg for a fresh start after a bankruptcy. In Russia he founded a company that manufactured furnaces, steam engines, and machines for making wagon wheels. The company’s fortunes brightened when Immanuel demonstrated in the Tsar’s presence the effectiveness of sea mines against shipping vessels, winning a contract with the Russian government. The enhanced prosperity enabled Immanuel’s wife Carolina (neé Ahlsell) and their three sons, Robert, Ludvig, and Alfred, to join him in Russia in 1842. A fourth son, Emil, was born in St. Petersburg.3 The lads were taught at home by university professors. From a Swedish tutor, Lars Santesson, they learned the Swedish language and history, world literature, and philosophy. They were taught mathematics, chemistry, and physics by a Russian tutor, Ivan Peterov. In cosmopolitan St. Petersburg the pupils became fluent in five languages: Swedish, Russian, French, German, and English.
Chemist, Engineer, Entrepreneur
The teenage Alfred studied abroad in 1850–1852. In Paris he met the Italian chemist Ascanio Sobrero, who had synthesized the sensitive, highly explosive nitroglycerin.4 Alfred returned to St. Petersburg in 1852 during the Crimean War to find the family business manufacturing war materiel for the Russian army. But when the war ended in 1856 the Russian army orders abruptly stopped, plunging the Nobel factory into bankruptcy. The parents and Emil returned to Sweden, while Robert, Ludvig, and Alfred remained in St. Petersburg to start anew. They formed the Brothers Nobel oil company with prospects near the Caspian Sea. A tireless inventor, Alfred soon had several patents to his credit. The first one, issued in 1857, was for an improved gas meter. A patent for an improved pressure gauge followed in 1859.5
Steering himself back into the family business of explosives, which Immanuel had resumed in Sweden, Alfred was issued patents in 1863 for improvements in gunpowder production. Recalling the potential of nitroglycerin, he turned to the problems that prevented this unstable liquid from being usefully controlled. The first problem—whose solution required many dangerous experiments—was to synthesize nitroglycerin in quantity without premature detonation. The second challenge was to devise a way to explode nitroglycerin deliberately and reliably. Into a zinc can packed with gunpowder he placed a stoppered test tube filled with nitroglycerin. To initiate a purposeful explosion he invented the blasting cap, a hollow plug filled with gunpowder and lit with a fuse. When he threw the prototype into a canal, the huge explosion resulted in a spectacular waterspout. Returning to Stockholm, Alfred found his father trying with less success to solve the same problems—which resulted in a priority dispute between father and son. After Alfred described the technical details in a letter to his father, Immanuel backed off and helped his son apply for the patent under Alfred’s name, which was awarded in 1864. The first large-scale use of this new “blasting oil” came in 1864 when the Swedish State Railway built Stockholm’s Söder Tunnel. The Nobels set up factories in Sweden, Germany, and America.
Tragically, in September 1864 an explosion at the Stockholm factory killed Emil and four others. In 1866 another explosion occurred at the Nobel factory in Germany. Reflecting over two devastating accidents in two years, Nobel pondered nitroglycerin’s instability. He realized this touchy liquid might be mechanically stabilized if it were absorbed into a porous matrix. In the German moorlands lay a diatomaceous earth called kieselguhr that Nobel mixed with nitroglycerin. The resulting puttylike material could be shaped into cylinders that conveniently fit into drilling holes. It could be jarred in transport and touched by a lit match without exploding, but Nobel’s blasting cap produced an ignition sufficiently hot and fast to sweep through the entire putty stick and explode it. Alfred named his invention “dynamite” after the Greek word for power, dynamis. Patents were granted in 1867. Orders for dynamite poured in for large civil engineering projects, such as constructing the St. Gotthard tunnel through the Swiss Alps in the 1870s.
In 1868, Alfred and Immanuel were recognized by the Swedish Academy of Sciences with the Letterstedt Prize for “important discoveries of practical value to humanity.” The citation’s wording would be echoed 30 years later when Alfred established the prizes that bear his name. In 1884 Alfred Nobel was elected a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Science, which would later administer some of the Nobel Prizes.
Over his busy career Alfred Nobel was granted 355 different patents in several countries.5 Most of the patents were for explosives and armaments, including gelignite (1875), more powerful than dynamite, and ballistite (1887), the forerunner of cordite. Even in the final years of his life Nobel was still active in weapons design, patenting firearm silencers and recoil inhibitors (1894), fuses and smokeless gunpowder for explosive projectiles (1896), and rocket-powered projectiles with timed ignition (1896). One could argue that Alfred Nobel’s companies formed a 19th-century military-industrial complex, because weapons industries inevitably overlap politics. For instance, in 1891 while living in Paris, Nobel was accused of “high treason against France” for selling ballistite to Italy. Quitting the French residence, he made San Remo, Italy, along with his native Sweden, his homes for the rest of his days.
A Man of Letters
Alfred Nobel’s “second home” after inventions and manufacturing was literature and writing.7 In his student days he translated Voltaire from French into Swedish, then from Swedish back into French, and compared his second translation to the original. His personal library ultimately held over 1500 volumes in several languages, including elegantly bound collections of classics such as Shakespeare, Goethe, and Schiller; philosophy and history works including Compte, Voltaire, and Rousseau; and his engineering and science books, including a copy of Charles Darwin’s recently published Origin of Species.
When he moved to Paris in 1873, Nobel met Countess Bertha von Suttner of Austria, a well-known pacifist, organizer of peace conferences, and author of a famous antiwar novel Lay Down Your Arms.6 She and Nobel maintained a lifelong friendship through correspondence. The countess was impressed by Nobel’s “well-stocked library, capable of satisfying the most divergent wishes.” In Paris Juliette Adam Lambert, the publisher of a literary review magazine, introduced Nobel to Victor Hugo. On Hugo’s 83rd birthday Nobel wrote in French to the author of Les Misérables, “Great Master, long may you live to charm the world and propagate your ideas about universal charity.”
Nobel wrote extensively. His literary works included In Brightest Africa, a novel of social criticism written while he lived in St. Petersburg, where he also drafted a novel called The Sisters about faith and free-thinking. In 1895 he produced a satirical draft called The Patent Bacillus, “based on the dogmatism and bureaucracy he experienced.” He wrote numerous poems, and essays on the origin of the universe and on human evolution. His correspondence was extensive, sometimes twenty letters a day.
A biographer notes that Nobel had “a solidly grounded belief in progress. Technological inventions and scientific conquests would lead humanity forwards, and he seems to have believed that good literature could play a dynamic role in an ‘ideal direction.’”7 Works “in the ideal direction” would appear in his criteria for the Nobel Prize in Literature, with the meaning of “ideal direction” left open to interpretation.8
The Society of Physics Students has offered a wonderful lapel button that proclaimed “Physics is the Poetry of Nature.” How inspiring to find that the person who established prestigious prizes for outstanding accomplishments in physics, chemistry, medicine, and world peace would include literature in that class! The Nobel Prizes commemorate outstanding creativity, and creativity, as Jacob Bronowski describes it, is the search for unity in hidden likenesses.9 The inner fire that drives searches for unified field theories, or seeks common ground between nations, or expresses transcendent human experience through novels and poetry is sparked by the same passion for harmonious understanding.
A Pacifist Weapons Merchant
Imagine having a Tom Sawyer experience, when you are mistakenly presumed to be dead and secretly attend your funeral to learn how you are remembered.10 A similar experience happened to Alfred Nobel in 1888. His brother Ludvig died, but a Paris newspaper mistakenly produced an obituary about Alfred, announcing “The merchant of death is dead.”
“Alfred Nobel,” the obituary reported, “who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.” Nobel was probably stung by this criticism because, however unlikely it may seem, he had pacifist leanings.6
When developing dynamite, he envisioned its use for infrastructure, not in war. Of course, using dynamite on the battlefield quickly proved irresistible. Only three years after it was patented, dynamite was used by both sides in the Franco-Prussian War. Encouraged by Countess von Suttner, Nobel joined the Austrian Peace Association and was a financial donor. But he insisted that a realistic strategy was more important than funding. He cautioned the countess that “Good wishes alone will not ensure peace.”
Nobel saw no contradiction between his armament industries and the cause of peace. Decades before the doctrine of mutually assured destruction became dogma, he saw powerful weapons as war deterrents. When Nobel and Suttner met in 1876 he told the countess, “Perhaps my factories will put an end to war sooner than your congresses. On the day that two army corps can mutually annihilate each other in a second, all civilized nations will surely recoil with horror and disband their troops.”6 More than a century has passed since Nobel’s death. Although subsequent decades have seen two world wars, the atomic bomb, the Cold War, and aircraft and missiles that can murder millions within seconds, the nations have not disbanded their troops. By Nobel’s definition, they are not yet civilized.
The Nobel Prizes
Even though he maintained a fast pace of armament development into the very last years of his life, one may surmise that Alfred Nobel’s premature obituary may have caused him to ponder his legacy. On November 27, 1895, at the Swedish-Norwegian Club in Paris, he signed the final version of his will, a document of scarcely one page.11 Having no wife or children, he left 6 percent of his vast wealth to various relatives. With the remaining 94 percent he established five12 prizes to be awarded each year:
"The whole of my remaining realizable estate…shall constitute a fund, the interest on which shall be annually distributed in the form of prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind."
The interest earned for the five prizes would be apportioned equally between physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace. The Physics Prize would go to “the person who shall have made the most important discovery or invention within the field of physics” as determined by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. This criteria allows discoveries of fundamental principles (e.g., quantum electrodynamics) or applications (e.g., the transistor). The Peace Prize would go “to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies, and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” The Nobel Peace Prize recipient would be selected by a committee of five persons “to be elected by the Norwegian Storting,” or parliament.13 Nobel closed his will with a requirement of inclusivity: “It is my express wish that in awarding the prizes no consideration be given to the nationality of the candidates, but that the most worthy shall receive the prize, whether he be Scandinavian or not.”
A year after writing his will, Alfred Nobel passed away on December 10, 1896, in San Remo. The first Nobel Prize ceremony was held at the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm in 1901. The first Nobel Prize in Physics went to Wilhelm Röntgen for his 1895 discovery of X-rays.
Not having attended a Nobel ceremony myself, I will borrow a description of one from a Paul Dirac biographer, who described the festivities of December 1933 when Dirac and Erwin Schrödinger shared the Nobel Prize in Physics:
“Early on Sunday evening, hundreds of coiffed men and women packed the galleries at the Stockholm Concert Hall to witness the King’s presentation of the prizes. At 5 p.m. sharp, a blazing chorus of trumpets silenced the crowd before the opening of the two huge doors into the room where the prizes would be awarded. Each of the laureates, escorted by one of the Swedish hosts, marched to their separate armchairs on the platform, covered in red velvet and decorated with banks of pink cyclamen, maidenhair ferns and palms. The national flags of the laureates hung alongside Sweden’s. The prize-winners were in the customary starched white shirt and bow tie, and all of them wore dinner suits, except Dirac… He bowed low to the King before accepting his medal and certificate and then bowed several times to the crowd amid tumultuous applause…
“After the ceremony, the laureates were driven back to the Grand Hotel to attend the Nordic midwinter feast of the Nobel Banquet, in the winter garden of the Royal Salon. Even by the standards of Cambridge this was a spectacular setting for a dinner: the tables, lit with hundreds of bright-red candles in silver holders, were arranged in a horseshoe shape around the water fountain in the centre of the room. There were three hundred guests, every woman in her most scintillating gown, every man in a dinner jacket, except Dirac… On a balcony above, liveried musicians played, in competition with canaries chirruping in their cages near the glass roof.
“After the speeches, a silent toast to the memory of Alfred Nobel and the singing of the Swedish national anthem, a fleet of waiters began to deliver the first course from a menu that featured game consommé, sole fillet with clams and shrimps… The climax was the chef’s pièce de résistance dessert: ice-cream bombes that shone in the dark after they had been doused in alcohol and set alight. Afterwards, each laureate was expected to make a short speech, customarily a few pieties of gratitude and reflection, laced with self-deprecating wit…14
The prestige of the Nobel Prize stands as the pinnacle accolade in each discipline recognized by Nobel’s will. We have all witnessed how, when a conference or colloquium features a Nobel laureate (or someone everyone knows should have been a laureate),15 the auditorium is packed. Even so, Richard Feynman once observed that winning the Nobel Prize “is a pain in the neck.”16 Because of the celebrity, he felt he could not move about in everyday life with the freedom that an ordinary person enjoys. Be that as it may, as in any demanding discipline, one’s best work results when it is done joyfully, giving it one’s all for the love of the game.17 When one of our colleagues wins a Nobel Prize, we share their joy and realize with gratitude that we form a deep bench of knowledgeable appreciators. Most of us are in no danger of receiving the life-changing telephone call from Sweden. But if we aren’t enough without it, we won’t be enough with it, for whether our task is directing searches for gravitational waves, or grading weekly lab reports, or repairing the vacuum pumps, there are no unimportant roles in the physics community. Few win a Nobel, but whatsoever is rightly done, however humble, is noble.
The accomplishments of the Nobel laureates, against the backdrop of Alfred Nobel’s source of wealth that makes the prizes possible, illustrates the dilemma that places science at the intersection of intellectual discipline for its own sake and its applications with consequences good and bad. Nobel “gave expression to the prevalent 19th-century understanding which maintained that the scientist was not responsible for how his findings were used. Each scholarly discovery is neutral in itself, but can be used for both good and bad objectives.”6 The distinctions between scientific discoveries and the societal responsibilities of scientists are not as sharp in our 21st century as they were in Alfred Nobel’s 19th century. But each annual Nobel Prize in Physics offers an opportunity for thoughtful reflection on the relationships between physics as an intellectual discipline and the societal responsibilities of physicists. Such reflective thinking would be a legacy of which Alfred Nobel would be proud.
1. D.E. Neuenschwander, “Composers, Performers, and Appreciators,” Radiations (Spring 1998), 6–7.
2. Biographical notes about Alfred Nobel are from articles on the Nobel Prize website, www.nobelprize.org/alfred_nobel/biographical/articles: Birgitta Lemmel, “Alfred Nobel-St. Petersburg, 1842–1863”; Tore Frängsmyr, “Alfred Nobel – Life and Philosophy”; Sven Tägil (ref. 6); and Ǻke Erlandsson (ref. 7).
3. The family had eight children; four did not survive beyond childhood, two (a son and a daughter) were born after Emil.
4. The original name of nitroglycerin was pyroglycerin.
5. “List of Alfred Nobel’s Patents,” www.nobelprize.org/alfred-nobel/list-of-alfred-nobels-patents/.
6. Sven Tägil, “Alfred Nobel’s Thoughts about War and Peace,” www.nobelprize.org/alfred-nobel/alfred-nobels-thoughts-about-war-and-peace/.
7. Ǻke Erlandsson, “Alfred Nobel and His Interest in Literature,” www.nobelprize.org/alfred-nobel/alfred-nobel-and-his-interest-in-literat....
8. Bob Dylan fans (including the author) are glad the Nobel committee for the Literature Prize did not take a narrow definition of poetry. Dylan won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature.
9. Jacob Bronowski, Science and Human Values (Harper & Row, New York, 1956, 1965), 13.
10. Chapter 17 of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain.
11. “Alfred Nobel’s Will,” www.nobelprize.org/alfred_nobel/will/.
12. A sixth prize for economics came about in 1968, when at the request of Alfred’s great-great-nephew, Peter Nobel, the Bank of Sweden (Sveriges Riksbank) initiated the Riksbank Prize for Economic Science in Memory of Alfred Nobel. The winners are selected by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
13. The Nobel Peace Prize ceremony takes place in the beautiful City Hall of Oslo, Norway. In 1905 the Norwegian Storting selected Bertha von Suttner as that year’s Nobel Peace Prize recipient.
14. Graham Farmelo, The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom (Basic Books, New York, 2009), 240–241.
15. E.g., as everyone in the physics community knows, Freeman Dyson should have shared the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics for developing quantum electrodynamics, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, should have shared the 1974 Nobel Prize for the discovery of pulsars, Ralph Alpher and Robert Herman for the prediction of cosmic background radiation—one could go on. Professor Dyson graciously observes, “It’s better for people to ask why you didn’t win the Nobel Prize than for them to ask why you did” [Phillip Schewe, Maverick Genius: The Pioneering Odyssey of Freeman Dyson (St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2013), 179–180]. To this list of should-be Nobel laureates we must add George Sudarshan, who passed away as this article was being written. He developed (with Robert Marshak) the V-A theory of the weak interaction, which opened the door to the electroweak interaction and the Sudarshan-Glauber quantum theory of coherent light (Roy Glauber shared the 2005 Nobel Prize).
16. Richard Feynman, interview in the NOVA documentary “Richard Feynman: Last Journey of a Genius” (broadcast on PBS); see also Richard Feynman, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out (Perseus Books, Cambridge, MA, 1999), 12.
17. D.E. Neuenschwander, “For the Love of the Game: It’s Not About the Prize,” SPS Observer (Fall 2010), 2–4.