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The Nobel Prize

Awards season may have been cancelled this year but luckily we still had the Nobel Prize to look forward to. Before we talk about the winners, let’s explore the origins of how the Nobel Prize came to fruition. 


Alfred Nobel was a Swedish inventor, industrialist and businessman. In his childhood, Alfred was described as extremely curious and intelligent. His studies flourished when he moved to St. Petersburg, Russia to join his father, who had established a successful business manufacturing explosives and machine tools. The family’s growing fortune enabled them to employ private tutors for Alfred and his siblings, and by age 16 he was a competent chemist. He went on to study chemical engineering, while his brothers stayed in Russia to run their father’s business (and eventually establish their own successes in the oil industry). After returning to Sweden, Alfred began dabbling in explosives, specifically nitroglycerine. 


Through his experiments - which sometimes proved fatal - Alfred refined his techniques and went on to invent dynamite, for which he secured a patent. He also invented the detonator, or blasting cap, used to set off his new invention via a fuse. The combination of dynamite and detonators reduced operating costs in industry like mining and construction. He went on to set up over 90 factories around Europe to supply the growing demand. Alfred passed away in 1896, and in his last will and testament he stipulated that a large portion of his fortune be set aside for a series of prizes across five categories - physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace. The winners in each category would be chosen on the basis of their contribution to humanity, “to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.


But wait - what about the prize in economics? Well, this wasn’t established in Alfred’s will, but in 1968 Sweden’s Central Bank created The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel.


Relatives and authorities were left a bit confused by the contents of his will, and, quite frankly, weren't super pleased - guess not all the Nobels were as noble as our dear Alfred. After a lengthy legal battle, the Nobel Foundation was finally established in Sweden in 1900 and the first prize was awarded in 1901. 


Since 1901, the Nobel Prize has been awarded 632 times to 962 people and organizations. So without further ado - below are the 2020 Nobel Prize winners: 


Physiology or Medicine: Drs. Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles M. Rice for their discovery of the blood-born virus, hepatitis C and their work to find ways to combat and prevent it - saving millions of lives in the process. 


Physics: Roger Penrose, Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez for their work to improve our understanding of the universe, including black holes.


Chemistry: Jointly awarded to Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna for the development of a genome-editing method called Crispr-Cas9.


Literature: American poet Louise Gluck “for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal”.


Peace: The World Food Program for “its efforts to combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas, and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict”.


Economic Science: Paul R. Milgrom and Robert B. Wilson for their work in improvements to auction theory and inventions of new auction formats.


Learn more:

Alfred Nobel's Life and Work

Nobel Prize facts

2020 Nobel Prize Winners: Full List

Image by Alexander Mahmoud

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