It’s that time of year when the Nobel Prize is awarded for achievements in a number of disciplines. Swedish inventor and philanthropist Albert Nobel (1833-1896) donated his fortune (from being the creator of dynamite) to provide large monetary prizes to recognize annual major contributors to the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and peace…but not economics or math.
When the Nobel Prize winners (or “laureates”) are announced, you’ll probably see the recipients of the Economics award lumped in with them, and many prominent economists have been said to have won the Nobel Prize for Economics. For example, this year’s honorees are Harvard economist Oliver Hart and MIT economist Bengt Holmstrom, who both helped developed the concept of “contract theory.” However, there’s actually no such thing as a Nobel Prize for Economics. In 1968, Sveriges Riksbank (the Bank of Sweden) wanted to commemorate its 300th anniversary…but also wanted to win itself more autonomy from government regulation. The key: Make authorities and the general public think that the up-and-down world of economics was a hard science, comparable to physics or chemistry. To that end, the Bank of Sweden started awarding (and funding) the annual Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. The Nobel Foundation lists the winners among its laureates, and it’s handed out at the same time each year as the other, traditional Nobel Prizes, but it wasn’t something Alfred Nobel established (and his descendants have publicly spoken out against it).
The highest award that a mathematician can receive for unlocking a new secret of how numbers work is the Fields Medal. But mathematics remains a glaring omission from the variety of Nobel Prizes awarded each year. The reason why that is has persisted as an urban legend (and has often been reported as fact) for more than 100 years. The story goes that Albert Nobel’s wife had an affair with a prominent European mathematician. When Nobel was setting up the system that would award the Nobel Prizes, he specifically made sure there wouldn’t be one for mathematics because he didn’t want his wife’s lover to wind up with it. In reality, Nobel never married…so the story just can’t be accurate. The truth: Nobel set up prizes in the subjects in which he had the most personal interest. He just wasn’t a big “math guy.”