A Nobel reward

I’m feeling rather guilty about my choice of design for nobelium as we all know that Alfred Nobel wanted to be remembered for his prizes rather than for the invention of dynamite. Nevertheless, a round medal doesn’t lend itself to an interesting or recognisable pattern and try as I might, all I could come up with to represent the element or Nobel himself was sticks of dynamite.

As the prizes were last week’s story, this week I will tell the tale of Nobel’s explosive invention. As a young man, Alfred travelled Europe to study, and while in Paris he met the inventor of nitroglycerine, Asciano Sobrero. Alfred realised the potential of nitroglycerine as a much more powerful explosive than gunpowder, but its tendency to explode unpredictably with variations in temperature and pressure made it impractical to use. He and his brother Emil began to experiment with ways to make it safer. After an explosion that killed Emil and several others, Alfred was forced to move his experiments to a barge anchored in a lake as the authorities in Stockholm deemed the substance too dangerous to be used in the city. He found that mixing nitroglycerine with kieselguhr resulted in a more stable paste that could be formed into rods suitable for insertion into holes drilled in rock. It is this paste that he patented under the name dynamite. He also invented a detonator cap which could be lit by a fuse. Together his inventions represented a huge advance in the ease with which rock could be blasted for mining and tunnelling, as well as giving rise to the standard image of dynamite sticks with a fuse sticking out.

Despite most dynamite being used for civilian applications, the obituary erroneously published before Alfred’s death described him as someone who “became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before”. It was the realisation of how he would be remembered that is thought to have led to him leaving his wealth to found the Nobel Prizes. So without the dynamite there would have been no Nobel prizes; perhaps it is an appropriate pattern after all.

The discovery of the element nobelium is a tangled tale of claim and counter-claim. Ultimately it was Gyorgy Flerov and colleagues at Dubna who were recognised as its discoverers, but only after a long battle with Al Ghiorso’s team at Berkeley who made it independently a little later. However, the first team to claim discovery were based at the Nobel Institute of Physics in Stockholm, and although their claim could not be verified, their name stuck and was ultimately approved by IUPAC. Alfred Nobel is now remembered for all time not just for his prizes but in the name of an element.

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