Alfred Nobel once said that if he had 300 ideas in a year, and one of them turned out to be a good one, he would be satisfied. A chemist and engineer, holder of more than 300 patents, Nobel’s best known invention was a way to tame unpredictable nitroglycerin by combining it with chalk and other inert ingredients; the result he named dynamite after the Greek word for power. He had less successful inventions, such as the bicycle that the rider moved with pedals that pumped rather than spun.
Michael Sohlman retired as executive director of the Nobel Foundation in May 2011 after nineteen years in that position. He spoke last week in Bloomington about Nobel and the intellectual origin of the prizes. Nobel was known to be a shrewd businessman, but he also had lifelong engagement with philosophy and political theory. He kept up a correspondence of 20 to 30 letters a day to friends, philosophers, and intellectuals all over Europe. He wrote a prose tragedy with such a dismal view of the world that made his friends attempt to destroy all copies when it was published at the end of his life. Sohlman believes it was the philosopher in Nobel, not the inventor or businessman, that prompted him to create an award that would come to define the way to honor creative endeavor around the world.
Although in rare cases institutions were honored, the award went overwhelmingly to individuals, individuals with the creative energy to define a new idea and to convince others of its “benefit to mankind” (to quote Nobel’s will). Ideas do not honor national borders. Nobel spoke six languages, and the Nobel Prize was possibly the first such honor to have an international reach, much to the chagrin of some of his countrymen, who wished it had been set up to promote Swedish achievements only.
Although Nobel’s will stipulated the bodies that would choose each year’s awards, he left no instructions on how the effort was to be coordinated. The Nobel Foundation, established in 1900 for this purpose, has been singularly successful in assuring the secrecy of deliberation and the respect for Nobel’s defining principles in making the awards. Asked if the Foundation regretted any of the prizes it had given, Sohlman was quick to point out that historical context must be understood before such judgments are made. He offered a single example. In 1949, Antonio Egas Moniz received half of the physiology/medicine prize in recognition of his promotion of lobotomy for certain psychoses. “At the time,” Sohlman commented, “there were few treatments that seemed as humane. We of course understand such things a great deal better now.” As a man who saw that one good idea in 300 made the intellectual effort worthwhile, Nobel would have been pleased with the Foundation’s track record.