Why Isn't There a Nobel Prize in Mathematics?

by Peter Ross

Back to Articles on the Public Understanding of Math

When I was a student at a leading American university one of my mathematics professors answered the above question in class. He claimed that the Swedish mathematician Gosta Magnus Mittag-Leffler had run off with Alfred Nobel's wife. Supposedly, later in revenge Nobel refused to endow one of his prizes in mathematics. I loved repeating this juicy story, but my faith in it was somewhat shaken when I found out that Nobel had never married! A Swedish version of the story even made it into one of Howard Eves' s collections of mathematical anecdotes (p.13O of Mathematical Circles, Quadrants III and no, 1969). According to this version Mittag-Leffler, in the process of accumulating his own considerable wealth, antagonized Nobel. Nobel, afraid that Mittag-Leffler as the leading Swedish mathematician might win a Nobel prize in mathematics, then refused to institute such a prize.

Both versions of the myth were debunked in the definitive article pithy "Is There No Nobel Prize in Mathematics?" by Lars Garding and Lars Hormander (pgs. 73-4 of Mathematical Intelligencer7:3,1985). The authors point out that Mittag-Leffler and Nobel had almost no relation to each other; Nobel emigrated from Sweden in 1865 when Mittag-Leffler was a student and rarely returned to visit. Garding and Hormander state, "The true answer to the question (of the title) is that, for natural reasons, the thought of a prize in mathematics never entered Nobel's mind." Nobel's final will of 1895 bequeathed $9,OOO,OOO for a foundation whose income would support five annual prizes in physics, chemistry, medicine-physiology, literature, and peace. Four of the original five prizes were in fields which were close to Nobel's own interests, medicine being the exception.

A sixth Nobel prize in economic science was added in 1969. The addition of this new Nobel prize suggests the possibility at some future date of a seventh Nobel prize. With the blossoming of computer science, statistics, and applied mathematics in addition to mathematics itself, a strong case could be made for a new Nobel prize in the mathematical sciences. Perhaps some Math Horizons reader, upon making his fortune,... of course, there are the Fields Medals that are awarded at each International Congress of Mathematicians. But these are given only every four years to a mathematician under forty, and they are not well-known outside of mathematical circles.

There is a larger question raised by the fact that apocryphal stories, such as the Nobel-math-prize myth, seem to have a life of their own. Are mathematicians justified in bending historical truth in order to serve laudable aims, such as illustrating that mathematicians are real people or interesting students in mathematics? Another example of this tendency concerns the famous story of Gauss's discovery as a ten- year old boy of a simple method for summing an arithmetic series. (Multiply the number of terms by the average of the smallest and largest terms.) Most mathematicians who teach will assert that the problem given to Gauss by his tyrannical school teacher was to sum the integers from 1 to 1OO. In fact, Gauss was given a more difficult problem "of the following sort, 81297 + 81495 + 81693 +... + lOO899, where the step from one number to the next is the same all along (here 198), and a given number of terms (here 1OO) are to be added." (p. 221 of E.T. Bell's Men of Mathematics, 1937). With this particular example it's easy to maintain historical truth by telling students that Gauss was given a problem like summing the integers from 1 to 1OO.

Mathematicians seem less likely to bend mathematical truth than historical truth. In this situation there is one technique which outstanding expositors like Paul Halmos have used in simplifying difficult mathematics. Halmos will either announce up front or in passing that he is going to lie a little. Perhaps mathematicians might use this technique when they find it necessary to bend historical truth.

PETER ROSS is a professor of mathematics at Santa Clara University.

This article was taken from Math Horizons Nov. '95, pg. 9.

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