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Subject: sci.math FAQ: No Nobel in Mathematics
This article was archived around: 17 Feb 2000 22:52:01 GMT
Last-modified: February 20, 1998
Why is there no Nobel in mathematics?
Nobel prizes were created by the will of Alfred Nobel, a notable
One of the most common --and unfounded-- reasons as to why Nobel
decided against a Nobel prize in math is that [a woman he proposed
to/his wife/his mistress] [rejected him because of/cheated him with] a
famous mathematician. Gosta Mittag-Leffler is often claimed to be the
There is no historical evidence to support the story.
For one, Mr. Nobel was never married.
There are more credible reasons as to why there is no Nobel prize in
math. Chiefly among them is simply the fact he didn't care much for
mathematics, and that it was not considered a practical science from
which humanity could benefit (a chief purpose for creating the Nobel
Further, at the time there existed already a well known Scandinavian
prize for mathematicians. If Nobel knew about this prize he may have
felt less compelled to add a competing prize for mathematicians in his
[...] As professor ordinarius in Stockholm, Mittag-Leffler began a
30-year career of vigorous mathematical activity. In 1882 he
founded the Acta Mathematica, which a century later is still one of
the world's leading mathematical journals. Through his influence in
Stockholm he persuaded King Oscar II to endow prize competitions
and honor various distinguished mathematicians all over Europe.
Hermite, Bertrand, Weierstrass, and Poincare were among those
honored by the King. [...]
Source: "The Mathematics of Sonya Kovalevskaya" by Roger Cooke
(Springer-Verlag, New York etc., 1984, II.5.2, p. 90-91:
Here are some relevant facts:
* Nobel never married, hence no ``wife''. (He did have a mistress, a
Viennese woman named Sophie Hess.)
* Gosta Mittag-Leffler was an important mathematician in Sweden in
the late 19th-early 20th century. He was the founder of the
journal Acta Mathematica, played an important role in helping the
career of Sonya Kovalevskaya, and was eventually head of the
Stockholm Hogskola, the precursor to Stockholms Universitet.
However, it seems highly unlikely that he would have been a
leading candidate for an early Nobel Prize in mathematics, had
there been one -- there were guys like Poincare and Hilbert
around, after all.
* There is no evidence that Mittag-Leffler had much contact with
Alfred Nobel (who resided in Paris during the latter part of his
life), still less that there was animosity between them for
whatever reason. To the contrary, towards the end of Nobel's life
Mittag-Leffler was engaged in ``diplomatic'' negotiations to try
to persuade Nobel to designate a substantial part of his fortune
to the Hogskola. It seems hardly likely that he would have
undertaken this if there was prior bad blood between them.
Although initially Nobel seems to have intended to do this,
eventually he came up with the Nobel Prize idea -- much to the
disappointment of the Hogskola, not to mention Nobel's relatives
and Fraulein Hess.
* According to the very interesting study by Elisabeth Crawford,
``The Beginnings of the Nobel Institution'', Cambridge Univ.
Press, 1984, pages 52-53:
Although it is not known how those in responsible positions at the
Hogskola came to believe that a large bequest was forthcoming, this
indeed was the expectation, and the disappointment was keen when it
was announced early in 1897 that the Hogskola had been left out of
Nobel's final will in 1895. Recriminations followed, with both
Pettersson and Arrhenius [academic rivals of Mittag-Leffler in the
administration of the Hogskola] letting it be known that Nobel's
dislike for Mittag-Leffler had brought about what Pettersson termed
the `Nobel Flop'. This is only of interest because it may have
contributed to the myth that Nobel had planned to institute a prize
in mathematics but had refrained because of his antipathy to
Mittag-Leffler or --in another version of the same story-- because
of their rivalry for the affections of a woman....
However, Sister Mary Thomas a Kempis discovered a letter by R. C.
Archibald in the archives of Brown University and discussed its
contents in "The Mathematics Teacher" (1966, pp.667-668).
Archibald had visited Mittag-Leffler and, on his report, it would
seem that M-L *believed* that the absence of a Nobel Prize in
mathematics was due to an estrangement between the two men. (This
at least is the natural reading, but not the only possible one.)
* A final speculation concerning the psychological element. Would
Nobel, sitting down to draw up his testament, presumably in a mood
of great benevolence to mankind, have allowed a mere personal
grudge to distort his idealistic plans for the monument he would
Nobel, an inventor and industrialist, did not create a prize in
mathematics simply because he was not particularly interested in
mathematics or theoretical science. His will speaks of prizes for
those ``inventions or discoveries'' of greatest practical benefit to
mankind. (Probably as a result of this language, the physics prize has
been awarded for experimental work much more often than for advances
However, the story of some rivalry over a woman is obviously much more
amusing, and that's why it will probably continue to be repeated.
Mathematical Intelligencer, vol. 7 (3), 1985, p. 74.
The Beginnings of the Nobel Institution. Elisabeth Crawford. Cambridge
Univ. Press, 1984.
Alex Lopez-Ortiz email@example.com
http://www.cs.unb.ca/~alopez-o Assistant Professor
Faculty of Computer Science University of New Brunswick