As the Nobel Prizes for medicine, physics, chemistry, literature and peace are announced through this week, mathematicians are once again left feeling excluded from the world’s grandest celebration of advancements that bring “the greatest benefit to mankind”.
Why did Alfred Nobel, best known as the inventor of dynamite and the holder of 355 patents, exclude math when he willed his fortune of 31 million SEK (Swedish Kroner, 265 million US$ today ) in 1896 for the creation of the Nobel Prizes?
Here are the most popular theories:
Math too theoretical: The Nobel Prize was created to award outstanding “practical” inventions or discoveries that benefit the world, and as an inventor and industrialist, Nobel may have considered mathematics too theoretical and not bothered to go into its practical application.
Math not interesting: Nobel’s own work was in physics and chemistry, he was interested in literature, and medicine was beginning to come of age at the turn of the last Century. The peace prize was included to improve his public image as a “merchant of death” for inventing dynamite. Math was of no interest or benefit to him.
Existing Math Award: King Oscar II of Sweden and Norway, himself a mathematician, had established a prestigious math award for mathematical contributions. Nobel may have thought there was no need to duplicate an established award of his own. Instead, he chose fields that interested him and for which there were no prestigious awards.
Rivalry: Rumours about Nobel’s dislike for a contemporary mathematician Gosta Mittag-Leffler, who founded the leading mathematical journal Acta Mathematica and persuaded King Oscar II to create the math award, made him exclude math because he did not want the award and the money to go to a man he didn’t care for.
Personal slight: The most popular but historically unproven theory is that Nobel’s partner cheated on him with Mittag-Leffler, which made Nobel hate the man and the subject he was associated with.
Biggest awards in Math
The Fields Medal: Often described as the Nobel prize for math, the Fields Medal — officially called the International Medal for Outstanding Discoveries in Mathematics — is awarded once every four years to up to four mathematicians under the age of 40 at the International Congress of Mathematicians.
The Abel Prize: The award was created in 2001 and named after the Norwegian mathematician Niels Henrik Abel. It is awarded by the King of Norway, which leads to parallels being drawn to the Nobel Prize. The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters declares the winner in March each year.
The Chern Medal Award: The Chern Medal recognises lifetime achievement in mathematics and, like the Fields Medal, is awarded once every four years at the International Congress of Mathematicians. The next is due in Rio de Janeiro in 2018.