Why no Nobel Prize for Mathematics?

Why didn’t Alfred Nobel set up a mathematics prize? There’s a persistent story that Nobel’s wife had an affair with the Swedish mathematician Gosta Mittag-Leffler, so Nobel hated mathematicians. But, there is a problem with this theory, because Nobel never married. Some versions of the story replace the hypothetical wife with a fiancee or a mistress. Nobel may have had a mistress —- a Viennese lady called Sophie Hess — but there is no evidence that she had anything to do with Mittag-Leffler.

An alternative theory holds that Mittag-Leffler, who became quite wealthy himself, did something to annoy Nobel. Since Mittag-Leffler was the leading Swedish mathematician of the time, Nobel ¬†realized that he was very likely to win a prize for mathematics, and decided not to set one up. However, in 1985, Lars Garding and Lars Hormander noted that Nobel left Sweden in 1865, to live in Paris, and seldom returned — and in 1865 Mittage-Leffler was a young student. So, there was little opportunity for them to interact, which casts doubt on both theories.

It is true that late in Nobel’s life, Mittag-Leffler was chosen to negotiate with him about leaving to the Stockholm Hogskola (which later became the University) a significant amount of money in his will, and this attempt eventually failed — but, presumably, Mittag-Leffler would not have been chosen if he’d already offended Nobel. In any case, Mittag-Leffler wasn’t likely to win a mathematical Nobel if one existed — there were plenty of more prominent mathematicians around. So, it seems more likely that it simply never occurred to Nobel to award a prize for mathematics, or that he considered the idea and rejected it, or that he didn’t want to spend even more cash.

Despite this, several mathematicians and mathematical physicists have won the prize for work in other areas — physics, chemistry, physiology, medicine, even literature. They have also won the Nobel in economics — the Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, established by the Sveriges Riksbank in 1968.

Ref: Prof Ian Stewart’s Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities (PS: there are many other stories, puzzles with diagrams, etc. which you would like in this book. It would be a good addition to your library!! You can discuss such light stuff with friends and impress them !!)

More later,

Nalin Pithwa








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