by Stephen Cooley ’23
The Nobel Prize Organization announced on 12 October the final prize in its lineup of 2020 laureates. Every year, the organization nominates people or organizations who, as the Statutes of the Nobel Organization say, “during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind.” The five original prizes are awarded in the areas of Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Literature, and Peace, with one additional prize added by the Swedish central bank for the most outstanding discovery in economic sciences.
The importance of the Nobel prizes is a direct consequence of the long and complex history of the Nobel Foundation. It was founded by the will of Alfred Nobel, a prominent Swedish chemist and inventor born on 21 October 1833 in Stockholm. The owner of 355 patents, he was constantly coming up with new ideas, and is quoted as saying, “Home is where I work and I work everywhere.” Perhaps his most notable discovery, though, was that of dynamite – patented in 1867, dynamite was revolutionary in the world of explosives. At the time, nitroglycerin was commonly used for blasting both in mining and other applications, but it was so sensitive to both heat and shock that it was incredibly dangerous to work with. It could explode simply from being dropped, making it impractical for most uses. Alfred Nobel, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, combined the nitroglycerin with a type of porous rock called Kieselguhr to get a solid substance much more resistant to shock than pure nitroglycerin – meaning it could be transported and used much more safely. He quickly made a fortune producing dynamite, and according to the Nobel Organization, was worth over $31 million Sweedish Krona by the time he died in 1896 – about $265 million USD today.
In addition to his talents in the sciences, he also had an interest in poetry, drama, and other forms of literature, with the Nobel Organization going so far as to say that “literature occupied a central role” in his life. The foundation also remarked that with his knack for literature came an interest in philosophy that led him to be quite “interested in social and peace-related issues, and [he] held views that were considered radical during his time,” but that he feared that his legacy would be one of violence for his invention of an explosive with the power to kill many when used maliciously in wars. To combat this, he outlined in his will an idea for an organization which would reward the greatest contributions to humanity over the past year. Using the interest on his money, prizes would be paid out in equal parts to the people or organizations behind the outstanding achievements.
This year, the Physics award went to Roger Penrose for his work on the formation of black holes, and to Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez for their research in proving that the center of the Milky Way is, in fact, a supermassive black hole.
Penrose is no stranger to important scientific discoveries. He worked with famous astrophysicist Stephen Hawking in the 1960s to prove that the matter in the center of a black hole collapses into a singularity, a single point which has infinite density and zero volume. He also contributed to the world of Mathematics, discovering a pattern of shapes that perfectly tiles a 2D plane that never repeats. His work for this year’s award further affirmed that black holes must exist under Einstein’s theories, and he once again worked closely with Stephen Hawking on the research. Many people were disappointed that Hawking was unable to share the prize, as he passed away in 2018, and Nobel Prizes cannot be given posthumously.
The other prizes went out to people who had greatly contributed to their fields, too – the Medicine prize went to Dr. Harvey J. Alter, Dr. Michael Houghton, and Dr. Charles M. Rice for their discovery of Hepatitis C, with the Nobel committee remarking that they had “made possible blood tests and new medicines that have saved millions of lives.” The Chemistry prize went to Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna for their work surrounding CRISPR, a powerful method of editing genes, and the recipient of the Literature award was Louise Glück, who the Nobel committee said had an “unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.”
Perhaps the most recognizable of the prizes, the Peace Prize, went to the World Food Program for working to feed those struggling with hunger in developing countries amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The organization, run by the United Nations, provided food to 100 million people last year, with significantly more beneficiaries expected for this year as more people fall into dangerous levels of food insecurity. Executive Director of the program David Basely said when he received the award, “It’s the first time in my life I’m speechless-” a sentiment that was shared among all this year’s winners as everyone works through this difficult time.
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