23 October 2018 Blogs

The Nobel Prizes, Past and Present

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Alfred Nobel created the Nobel Prizes in his last will and testament by stipulating that his wealth be used to establish prizes to those "who, during the preceding year, have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind"  in literature, physics, chemistry, medicine, and peace. You can find the full list of winners for the 2018 prizes here, but this year's most interesting Nobel prize winners were in the fields of chemistry and physics. The chemistry award was won by a trio of chemists (Frances H. Arnold, George P. Smith, and Sir Gregory P. Winter) for directed evolution of enzymes. They did so by using the principles of evolution, and then speeding up the process to create enzymes (proteins that catalyze chemical reactions) for the manufacturing of everything from biofuels to pharmaceuticals. In the field of physics, Arthur Ashkin, now the oldest to win a Nobel prize, won on the development of optical tweezers to manipulate particles, atoms, and living cells. One of the most controversial awards in recent times went two years ago to Bob Dylan for literature, and he'll likely be the first and last Rock and Roll prize winner in that category. What made it controversial was whether the Nobel committee went beyond the strict boundaries of literature (e.g., poetry, novels, essays, history writing) to include music lyrics, and whether the quality of Dylan's lyrics could qualify as literature. For many on the Nobel committee and Dylan's fans, the latter was certainly true. Dylan, ever the mysterious phantom whose nature seems to generally shun public awards, did not attend the ceremony, citing his hectic tour schedule as the reason. He later picked up the award while touring Norway and Sweden. The World War II era was likely the most interesting time in the history of the Nobel prizes. In 1935 the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to German author and pacifist Carl von Ossietzky for reporting that Germany had violated the terms of the Treaty of Versailles by rearming their military. When he was nominated, Ossietzky was being held in a Nazi concentration camp for treason and espionage for publishing the exposé of the German air force training going on in the Soviet Union. When Ossietzky was awarded the prize, Adolph Hitler banned anyone in Germany from receiving the prize. In 1939, UK prime minister Neville Chamberlain was nominated for the Peace Prize for drawing up the Munich Agreement which ceded portions of Czechoslovakia to Germany. In response to this, E.G.C. Brandt, a member of the Swedish parliament and staunch antifascist, satirically nominated Adolph Hitler as a joke in response to the Chamberlain nomination. Apparently, most people failed to see the irony and the nomination was quickly withdrawn. Because of Germany's invasion and occupation of Norway from 1940-1942 no awards were given. Here are more interesting facts about the Nobel prizes: * Ironically, Alfred Nobel amassed his fortune in the manufacture of major war armaments even though one of his original five prizes was the Nobel Peace Prize. The peace prize might have been inspired by a premature French obituary that referred to him as the "merchant of death." * Three Nobel laureates were in prison when they received the award: Carl von Ossietzky in 1935, Burmese politician Aung San Suu Kyi in 1991, and Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo in 2010. * An award can't be turned down. It is given, regardless of whether or not it's accepted. But there are people who have declined the award. Jean-Paul Sartre, who won the 1964 prize for literature, turned it down because he stated that he had always declined official honors and didn't want to be institutionalized. Le Duc Tho won the Nobel Peace Prize jointly with U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for the 1973 armistice agreement during the Vietnam War, but he turned it down because he claimed the U.S. and Kissinger violated the ceasefire. Russian Boris Pasternak, winner of the 1958 award for literature for his novel "Doctor Zhivago," refused to accept the award under extreme pressure from Soviet officials. * Four people and two organizations have won a Nobel prize multiple times: Marie Curie for physics (1903) and chemistry (1911), Linus Pauling for chemistry (1954) and peace (1962), and John Bardeen for physics (1956 and 1972). The International Committee of the Red Cross has won it three times (1917, 1944, and 1963) and Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees twice (1954 and 1981). * The United States has by far the most recipients of the prizes with 377; United Kingdom follows with 130 and Germany with 108. * Of the over 800 gender-specific winners of the Nobel prizes, only 51 women have won. The first to win a prize was Marie Curie (Physics); the last three, all in 2018 were Donna Strickland (Physics), Frances Arnold (Chemistry), and Nadia Murad (Peace). * At 17, Pakistani Malala Yousafzai is the youngest to have won a Nobel prize. After enduring a brutal attack by the Taliban, who saw her as a threat for her work in human rights, she won the Nobel Peace Prize for her struggle against the suppression of children and young people, and for the right for all children to receive an education.

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