Friday, December 10, 2010

December 10, 1896 – Nobel Leaves Legacy for Six Prizes

Swedish-born Alfred Nobel worried over his legacy as his life came to an end. In 1867, he patented dynamite, a stable form of nitroglycerine soaked into an absorbent. It was to be a great boon to mankind: a tool for excavation for construction, for demolition of dangerous structures, and for swift, safe digging to mine Earth's bounty as well as build roads for travel and commerce. Afterward, he had invented further explosives, such as gelignite (blasting gel) and the smokeless propellant ballistite. All of these great leaps forward for the human race were quickly adapted to military use, however. Ballistite would even cause newspapers to accuse Nobel of treason against France as the Italians changed their rifles to use his compound.

His real concern came as he learned of an obituary that had been written about him, mistaking his death for that of his brother Ludvig. A French newspaper wrote “the merchant of death is dead” and said that he had become “rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before.” His patents for artificial silk, artificial leather, and other improvements were never mentioned. A lifetime of devotion to invention had made him out to be a monster. To rectify this, he wrote his last will and testament in 1895, one year before his death by stroke, dedicating 94% of his vast fortune to a foundation to give out prizes in physics, chemistry, medicine & physiology, literature, and peace (supposedly brought on by his long relationship with the pacifist countess Bertha Kinsky, who had married another man). While writing at the Swedish-Norwegian Club in Paris, someone remarked that he had great notions of working toward the betterment of man, but nothing to study what the betterment was. His formulation of the literary prize was for works “in an ideal direction”, though it now seemed that the direction needed definition. To fill the gap, Nobel decided to add a sixth prize for the “sciences of society.”

In 1901, the prizes began (Austrian Sigmund Freud winning the first Social Science prize for his Interpretation of Dreams) and have continued yearly since. By 1906, however, it became obvious that the Prize for Social Science had unleashed a hailstorm of new ideas when Max Weber received the prize for discussions in his essay, “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.” The secularization and depth of scientific study of people in society had suddenly become very real to the largely Edwardian Western culture. In 1913, Émile Durkheim won in recognition of his comparisons of aboriginal societies to modern ones, giving further clout to the in-depth study of humanity as one would study the laws of gravity.

There would be many winners of the Social Science prize over the years in fields as diverse as economics, psychology, education theory, legal and political science, and behavioral science. Along with the progression encouraged by the growth of material and social benefits, there has been a good deal of questioning the morality of treating humans as Petri dish. B. F. Skinner's win in 1953 would cause many to suspect that it would only be a matter of time before humans were reduced to robots under an artificial paternalism. Encouragement from the Peace Prize and discoveries lauded in physics, chemistry, and medicine along with social commentary from Literature kept the prestige of the Nobel prizes strong.

Even with the fears of 1984 and A Clockwork Orange, it is evident that the Prize for Social Science has made positive impact on humanity. Following the act-reward programming for international diplomacy and the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the world has been studied and organized into all but eliminating starvation and death from preventable disease. On the other hand, opponents argue that the majority of the human race has been turned to salary-slave consumer-addicts, continually chasing upward mobility while enjoying momentary vicarious pleasures from politico-industrial sponsored sporting events and taking in well clad palatable pop-science as hope (or fear) for the future. Some naysayers of the naysayers ask simply, “What's wrong with that?”

In reality, Nobel founded the five prizes. In 1968, the Sveriges Riksbank established a prize for economics in Nobel's name during celebration of their 300th anniversary. While not initially a prize for social science, the prize has gradually become so, expanding from simple economics through game theory.

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