Today’s factismal: The world’s most famous chemist is known mostly for his charitable work.
Mining in the 1800s was a nerve-wracking job. Not only did you have to worry about bad air, cave-ins, and flooding, but the explosive of choice was almost as unstable as your boss. Known as nitroglycerin, it was easy and cheap to make but tricky and difficult to transport and use. It would go off if it got too hot or too cold, if it was jostled too much or not enough, or if it just didn’t like the way you looked at it. It frequently destroyed the factories where it was being made, and its habit of exploding while being moved led to laws against it being transported across state lines.
But in 1867, Alfred Nobel found a way to tame the beastly blast. By mixing the nitroglycerin with diatomaceous earth or sawdust, he was able to make it more stable and less dangerous. It could be easily stored and transported and could even be measured on the spot with very little chance of losing an arm. Needless to say, dynamite was an immediate hit and made Alfred Nobel very, very rich indeed. But every silver lining has a cloud, and dynamite had a big one.
Because nitroglycerine was so unstable, no sane Army would use it. But because dynamite was so stable, it immediately became the basis for new and more powerful weapons. Nobel knew this and it didn’t particularly bother him (his family fortune was founded in arms manufacturing), but it did upset a lot of other people. And when Alfred’s brother Ludvig died, he got an idea of just how much it bothered other folks. A French newspaper thought that it was Alfred that died, and took the opportunity to write one of the most scathing obituaries ever seen. The nicest thing that they called him was a “merchant of death”. Alfred was mortified.
He decided to redeem his family name. And, since science had gotten him into this predicament, he decided that science would get him out of it. He established the Nobel Prize, which was given out every year for the most important work in physics, chemistry, literature, and (in a deliberately ironic twist) peace. (Later groups would add an economics prize.) The Nobel Prize has become the gold standard of work and worth in the sciences and continues to this very day. Evey year on his birthday, the prizes are awarded in the name and memory of the most famous chemist ever to live.
If you’d like to learn more about this year’s winners in chemistry, then head over to: