Alfred Nobel: Life After Death


Nobel, Nobel Prize, science, discovery

In 1988 a French newspaper ran a long obituary of Alfred Nobel. The article entitled "The Merchant of Death is Dead" was meant to show editors’ attitude towards Nobel’s invention of dynamite. In fact, the newspaper made a mistake, as it was Alfred’s brother Ludvig, who died, but this incident made Alfred Nobel think of how to improve his public image after his death. November 27, 1895 he wrote his last will and left his enormous fortune of 31,5 million Swedish kronas (around $250 million nowadays) to fund a set of international prizes. According to his will, yearly profit of his fortune was to be divided into 5 equal parts to award people who made the greatest contribution to humankind in Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Literature and Peace.

Alfred Nobel’s parents had 8 children but 4 of them died in childhood. Describing his 3 elder sons Immanuel Nobel said: “Robert is a born speculator, Ludvig has more of a genius and Alfred is a hard worker”.


Nobel and dynamite

Immanuel Nobel together with his son Alfred worked with nitro-glycerine. Father and son made a significant progress in their experiments when in 1864 a violent explosion of 100 kg of nitro-glycerine killed four laboratory workers, including Nobel’s younger brother 22-year-old Emil. It was a hard blow for Immanuel – shortly after the tragedy he had a stroke and was confined to bed for the rest of his life.

Alfred also felt guilty for the death of his brother but he did not give up the experiments. The same year he received a patent for production of an explosive with nitro-glycerine. Later on he received patents for a detonator, dynamite, smokeless gunpowder. By the end of his life Alfred owned 355 patents, among which were patents for a barometer, refrigerating device and gas burner. He ran enterprises in 20 countries around the world.


Sofie Hess, Alfred Nobel

Sofie Hess, Alfred Nobel's only love

Nobel and family

Alfred Nobel did not have children and was never married. When he was 41, he gave the following ad in the newspaper: “A very wealthy, cultured, elderly gentlemen desires to find a lady also of mature years, familiar with languages, as a secretary and manager of his household”. He received a reply from Bertha Kinsky but their relationship did not last long. When Alfred Nobel was 43, he fell in love with 20-year-old Sofie Hess, a clerk at a florist’s shop. He rented an apartment for Sofie and provided her with a luxurious life. Sofie was a real beauty but vulgar and a little stupid. She was with Nobel for almost 15 years. Their affair ended when Sofie announced she was pregnant by a Hungarian officer. Though Nobel lost touch with Sophie, he still provided her with money. After Alfred’s death, Sofie managed to get quite a big sum of money from Nobel’s relatives threatening that she would publish Alfred’s letters to her.


Nobel the writer

The majority of works written by Nobel were never published. The only play that had ever become famous was his tragedy “Nemesis”. Society considered it immoral and the entire printed edition was destroyed. In 2003 it was published again and in 2005 Stockholm saw its stage adaptation.


Why there is no Nobel Prize in Mathematics?

There is a myth that Nobel decided not to award mathematicians because one of them had an affair with his wife. Nobel’s biographers never confirmed this curious fact. On top of it, Nobel had never been married so there was no one to seduce.

According to another theory, Alfred Nobel was competing with a famous mathematician Gosta Mittag-Leffler for the attention of Sophie Kovalsky and Mittag-Leffler had more success. This theory is not proved as well, but there actually was tension between those two gentlemen.

Most of the researchers, however, lean towards a less romantic reason for ignoring Mathematics. First, Nobel wanted to award subjects that made great contribution to humankind and he could not grasp the practical benefits to the world of Mathematics. Although he included it in the list at first, the decision was made to substitute it with the prize for Peace. Second, at the time, there already existed a major mathematical award. Nowadays, instead of Nobel Prize, mathematician and computer scientists receive prestigious awards such as the Fields Medal, Abel Prize and Turing Award. So, we do not think they are envious anymore.