Debunking Myths About the No Noble Prize in Mathematics

Dr. Farooq Ahmad Sheikh

The renowned Nobel Prize is the legacy of the Swedish chemist, inventor and industrialist Alfred Nobel (1833-18960) who, on 27, November 1895, signed his last will giving the largest share of his income from the estate to a series of prizes. Initially, he selected the field of Physics, Chemistry, Literature, Peace and Physiology or Medicine for which prize shall be awarded. This prize came to be known as the five Noble Prizes. These prizes are being awarded yearly, as such the awardee or the Laureate receives a gold medal, a diploma and a sum of money decided by the Noble foundation, which may vary from year to year. As on 2012, each prize was worth 8 million SEK (approximately USD 1.2 million).
For the first time, the legendary prize was awarded in the year 1901. Thereafter in 1969, economics was included in the list of fields for which Nobel Prize would be awarded. An award for mathematics was not there in the list. The reason for this conspicuous omission has been a subject of extensive speculations. It is sure that an eminent person of science such as Alfred Nobel could not simply have forgotten about mathematics; rather he must have a good reason for not awarding in the said discipline.
With no factual reason at hand, people fabricated one or the other story and as usual they created one have always a bit of spice to it. It was rumored that Alfred Nobel deliberately avoided a prize for mathematics because his wife was in an affair with a prominent mathematician. The actual name of mathematician changes depending upon who is telling the story, but the most popular goes with the famous Swedish mathematician Gosta Mittag-Leffler (1846-1927).
While this is a nice anecdote to be told in a classroom of students feeling sleepy on the topics like limits and convergence, like some other such historic anecdotes, it is not simply true. There is no historic evidence to support this story. The reason is that Nobel was a confirmed bachelor, though he did propose to one woman, Alexandra, who turned him down. He later had a relationship also with his secretary Bertha Kinsky, who eventually married her former lover though Nobel and Kinsky remained very close friend for the rest of his life.
The third love of his life was a Viennese woman Sophie Hess, with whom he had a relationship for around 18 years, but there is no evidence that she ever had anything to do with Mittey-leffler. Aside from these women, there is no record of him having any significant love affair with any other woman.
Another version of the story is that Nobel had an enmity with Mittey-Leffler for some other reason, and he therefore avoided establishing a mathematics prize because Mittey-Leffler would almost certainly have little factual evidence to support it, as it is difficult to establish a possible reason for his resentment towards Mitlag-Leffler. In fact, Nobel and Mittey-Leffler were not in a relationship with each other. It is true that they both were members of “Stockholm Educated Society”. However, Nobel emigrated from Sweden in 1865 (when Mittey-Leffler was a student) and only returned about once a year on his mother’s birthday.
There are many other credible reasons behind ‘not having’ a Nobel Prize for mathematics. Chief among these is the fact that Nobel was not very much interested in this subject and did not group the practical benefits of advanced mathematics to the world. Precisely, the Nobel Prize is given only for those areas of study in which Nobel was personally interested. The descriptions of the prizes in physics and chemistry indicate as to what Nobel had in his mind, was development work of the kind in which he himself excelled. The prize for literature is due to his own literary interests, and the peace prize is an expression of his idealism and friendship with Bertha von Suttner, the author of “Lay down your arms!”. Mathematics was perhaps not one of Nobel’s interests.
Thus, whenever the motivations for a course of action are not clear, these are attributed to something spicy, which creates a story, both plausible and entertaining. This is what urban myths are all about.

—The author is an Assistant Professor in Department of Mathematics, Government College for Women Nawakadal Srinagar & Dr. D.K Jain, Associate Professor MITS Gwalior.

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