One Man's Nobel Idea

Winning a Nobel Prize is definitely a life-changing experience. But the way Nobel laureates find out the good news is pretty unassuming. 

Dr. Aziz Sancar’s experience is typical for a Nobel Prize recipient. Someone from Stockholm, Sweden, where the awards are announced, called him on the telephone. And since the awards are announced during the day in Sweden, it was the middle of the night in North Carolina. 

Ironically, the history of the Nobel Prize is just as humble. The award’s founder, Swedish Chemist Alfred Nobel was a pacifist at heart and an inventor by nature. He had followed in his father’s footsteps in science and industry (Nobel’s father built weapons for the Russian army), and was experimenting with nitroglycerine. He received his first patent for a percussion detonator in 1833 at age 30. 

Unfortunately, “nitro” is very dangerous, and one year later, an explosion blew up Nobel’s younger brother's factory near Stockholm. Several people, including the younger brother, were killed. 

The tragedy did not slow Nobel. He continued his work with explosives, and in 1867 invented a new and safer-to-handle explosive: dynamite. Nobel knew its destructive power, but he believed it could be a harbinger of peace. 

That didn’t happen, of course. But after Nobel’s death in 1896, his family, as well as the world, was shocked when it was discovered he’d left much of his wealth for the establishment of a prize. 

Nobel’s will states that his remaining estate should be used to endow “prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.” The interest from investments was to be divided into five equal parts for prizes in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace. 

Five years after Nobel’s death, the first Nobel prizes were awarded. 

To learn more about the Nobel Prize, visit the organization’s website at

—Frank Graff

 Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on North Carolina Science Now, a weekly science series that airs Wednesdays, beginning in August 2013, as part of North Carolina Now on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog! 

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