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sci.math FAQ: No Nobel in Mathematics


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Archive-name: sci-math-faq/nobel
Last-modified: February 20, 1998
Version: 7.5

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               Why is there no Nobel in mathematics?


                                       
   Nobel prizes were created by the will of Alfred Nobel, a notable
   Swedish chemist.
   
   One of the most common --and unfounded-- reasons as to why Nobel
   decided against a Nobel prize in math is that [a woman he proposed
   to/his wife/his mistress] [rejected him because of/cheated him with] a
   famous mathematician. Gosta Mittag-Leffler is often claimed to be the
   guilty party.
   
   There is no historical evidence to support the story.
   
   For one, Mr. Nobel was never married.
   
   There are more credible reasons as to why there is no Nobel prize in
   math. Chiefly among them is simply the fact he didn't care much for
   mathematics, and that it was not considered a practical science from
   which humanity could benefit (a chief purpose for creating the Nobel
   Foundation).
   
   Further, at the time there existed already a well known Scandinavian
   prize for mathematicians. If Nobel knew about this prize he may have
   felt less compelled to add a competing prize for mathematicians in his
   will.
   
     [...] As professor ordinarius in Stockholm, Mittag-Leffler began a
     30-year career of vigorous mathematical activity. In 1882 he
     founded the Acta Mathematica, which a century later is still one of
     the world's leading mathematical journals. Through his influence in
     Stockholm he persuaded King Oscar II to endow prize competitions
     and honor various distinguished mathematicians all over Europe.
     Hermite, Bertrand, Weierstrass, and Poincare were among those
     honored by the King. [...]
     
   Source: "The Mathematics of Sonya Kovalevskaya" by Roger Cooke
   (Springer-Verlag, New York etc., 1984, II.5.2, p. 90-91:
   
   Here are some relevant facts:
   
     * Nobel never married, hence no ``wife''. (He did have a mistress, a
       Viennese woman named Sophie Hess.)
     * Gosta Mittag-Leffler was an important mathematician in Sweden in
       the late 19th-early 20th century. He was the founder of the
       journal Acta Mathematica, played an important role in helping the
       career of Sonya Kovalevskaya, and was eventually head of the
       Stockholm Hogskola, the precursor to Stockholms Universitet.
       However, it seems highly unlikely that he would have been a
       leading candidate for an early Nobel Prize in mathematics, had
       there been one -- there were guys like Poincare and Hilbert
       around, after all.
     * There is no evidence that Mittag-Leffler had much contact with
       Alfred Nobel (who resided in Paris during the latter part of his
       life), still less that there was animosity between them for
       whatever reason. To the contrary, towards the end of Nobel's life
       Mittag-Leffler was engaged in ``diplomatic'' negotiations to try
       to persuade Nobel to designate a substantial part of his fortune
       to the Hogskola. It seems hardly likely that he would have
       undertaken this if there was prior bad blood between them.
       Although initially Nobel seems to have intended to do this,
       eventually he came up with the Nobel Prize idea -- much to the
       disappointment of the Hogskola, not to mention Nobel's relatives
       and Fraulein Hess.
     * According to the very interesting study by Elisabeth Crawford,
       ``The Beginnings of the Nobel Institution'', Cambridge Univ.
       Press, 1984, pages 52-53:
       
     Although it is not known how those in responsible positions at the
     Hogskola came to believe that a large bequest was forthcoming, this
     indeed was the expectation, and the disappointment was keen when it
     was announced early in 1897 that the Hogskola had been left out of
     Nobel's final will in 1895. Recriminations followed, with both
     Pettersson and Arrhenius [academic rivals of Mittag-Leffler in the
     administration of the Hogskola] letting it be known that Nobel's
     dislike for Mittag-Leffler had brought about what Pettersson termed
     the `Nobel Flop'. This is only of interest because it may have
     contributed to the myth that Nobel had planned to institute a prize
     in mathematics but had refrained because of his antipathy to
     Mittag-Leffler or --in another version of the same story-- because
     of their rivalry for the affections of a woman....
       However, Sister Mary Thomas a Kempis discovered a letter by R. C.
       Archibald in the archives of Brown University and discussed its
       contents in "The Mathematics Teacher" (1966, pp.667-668).
       Archibald had visited Mittag-Leffler and, on his report, it would
       seem that M-L *believed* that the absence of a Nobel Prize in
       mathematics was due to an estrangement between the two men. (This
       at least is the natural reading, but not the only possible one.)
     * A final speculation concerning the psychological element. Would
       Nobel, sitting down to draw up his testament, presumably in a mood
       of great benevolence to mankind, have allowed a mere personal
       grudge to distort his idealistic plans for the monument he would
       leave behind?
       
   Nobel, an inventor and industrialist, did not create a prize in
   mathematics simply because he was not particularly interested in
   mathematics or theoretical science. His will speaks of prizes for
   those ``inventions or discoveries'' of greatest practical benefit to
   mankind. (Probably as a result of this language, the physics prize has
   been awarded for experimental work much more often than for advances
   in theory.)
   
   However, the story of some rivalry over a woman is obviously much more
   amusing, and that's why it will probably continue to be repeated.
   
      References
      
   Mathematical Intelligencer, vol. 7 (3), 1985, p. 74.
   
   The Beginnings of the Nobel Institution. Elisabeth Crawford. Cambridge
   Univ. Press, 1984.
-- 
Alex Lopez-Ortiz                                         alopez-o@unb.ca
http://www.cs.unb.ca/~alopez-o                       Assistant Professor	
Faculty of Computer Science                  University of New Brunswick

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