Every Nobel season, which has just ended with the award of the Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, one question keeps popping up. Why is there no Nobel Prize for mathematics?
Researchers have looked for answers, and the generally accepted theory is that the idea of such a prize never occurred to Alfred Nobel. One popular myth they discount is that Nobel disliked mathematicians because one of them had an affair with his wife — for, Nobel never married. Others claim that Nobel kept mathematics away from his list for fear that it would be awarded to the Swedish mathematician Gösta Mittag-Leffler, who allegedly had an affair with Sophie Hess, a Viennese with whom Nobel himself had a relationship. Scholars dismiss this too; the evidence does not add up.
How he chose the five fields
In 1888, a French obituary described Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, him as the “Merchant of Death”. The newspaper had made a mistake: the man who had died was Ludvig Nobel, brother of Alfred (1833-1896). It upset Alfred Nobel, who hoped his real obituary would not include the words “Merchant of Death” — and thus the idea of setting up the Prizes, University of Michigan mathematician Lizhen Ji wrote in the journal Notices of the International Congress of Chinese Mathematicians in 2013.
Nobel chose Physics and Chemistry because he was a scientist himself. Physiology or Medicine, because he was a healthy man and valued progress in medicine, Ji wrote. Literature, because he himself had written plays and poems in his youth. And Peace, because, according to Ji, he hoped the Prize would one day be awarded to the Baroness Bertha von Suttner, another woman with whom Nobel once had a relationship. Eventually, she did win the Peace Nobel for her novel Lay Down Your Arms — in 1905, some years after Nobel’s death.
Awards for maths
“For natural reasons, the thought of a prize in mathematics never entered Nobel’s mind,” wrote the mathematicians Lars Gording and Lars Hörmander in one of the definitive research works on the subject, published in Mathematical Intelligencer in 1985. Ji referred to their findings that Nobel did not use much mathematics in his work or business, and did not enjoy mathematics either.
There are other prizes that honour achievements in mathematics. The Fields Medal, named after a Canadian mathematician, is awarded by the International Mathematical Union to mathematicians under age 40. The Abel Prize, named after the genius Neils Henrik Abel, is awarded by the Norwegian government. Other awards, such as the Shaw Prize, King Faisal International Prize, and Wolf Prize, include mathematics alongside other fields.
The Nobel Prize in various fields has recognised mathematicians and mathematics-related work on some occasions. Bertrand Russell won it for Literature in 1950, Max Born and Walter Bothe won the Physics Prize in 1954 for statistical work in quantum mechanics, and the legendary mathematician John Nash shared the 1994 Economics Prize for his work on game theory.
Busting the myth
Ian Stewart, Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at the University of Warwick, writing of theories about the absence of a mathematics Nobel in Professor Stewart’s Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities, noted that there is no evidence to connect the mathematician Mittag-Leffler with Sophie Hess.
“Other suggested reasons for enmity between the two men (Nobel and Mittag-Leffler) also fall apart when confronted with reality,” Stewart told The Indian Express, by email. In his book, he referred to the work of Gording and Hörmander, who had noted that in 1865, when Nobel left Sweden to live in Paris, Mittag-Leffler was a young student, which would mean that there was little opportunity for the two men to interact.
“The truth is that although Mittag-Leffler was a competent mathematician, he wasn’t good enough to have a chance of winning such a prize. He would have been competing against a star-studded field. Nobel might not have known that, but his advisors would surely have told him,” Stewart told The Indian Express.
“In any case, it’s a silly question. Nobel didn’t set up a prize for geology, archaeology, engineering, painting, sculpture, music — or football, for that matter. Not to mention hundreds of other areas of human activity. It would have bankrupted even him to cover everything,” he said.
Stockholm has an institute for mathematical research named after Mittag-Leffler. One of its first employees was the Russian Sonya Kowalevski who, according to Ji’s paper, had many admirers, including Alfred Nobel. She happened to be a mathematician.
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