There’s a myth, beloved by math teachers and professors everywhere, surrounding the conspicuous absence of a Nobel Prize for mathematics. It goes that Alfred Nobel, the award’s Swedish founder, snubbed the field after discovering his wife’s affair with mathematician Gosta Mittag-Leffler. This myth has long since been debunked by fact-checker website Snopes, which lists several reasons for its falsehood, not least of which is the fact that Nobel was never married (though he did have several mistresses throughout his life).
In fact, Nobel’s lack of family connections was crucial to his instituting the Nobel Prizes in the first place. Concerned with his legacy after a false obituary declared him “the merchant of death” (a reference to his invention of dynamite), Nobel, lacking children to carry on his name, allocated his assets to establish the Nobel Prizes. The prizes are notable for rewarding sciences with a practical application (physics, chemistry, medicine and economics) or work promoting idealism and peace.
It’s speculated that mathematics was left off the list because it’s not as practical a science as the other categories, or perhaps because Alfred Nobel simply wasn’t interested in the field. A renowned chemist and engineer and a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Nobel was always a scientist rather than a mathematician, with a focus on inventions with immediate practical applications.
Another reason often cited for the absence of a Nobel Prize in mathematics is that a similar award already existed in Nobel’s time: Oscar II, King of Sweden and Norway, had established a mathematical prize for anyone who could find a solution to Newton’s famous three-body (or n-body) problem; if the problem could not be solved, the prize was given for other important mathematical contributions.
Oscar II, known for his generous sponsorship of arts and sciences, would also later promise financial aid to mathematician Sophus Lie in his efforts to establish a mathematical award modelled after the Nobel Prize. Though Lie’s attempts failed, in 2002 his project, the Abel Prize, was resurrected. Administered by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, the Abel Prize is awarded annually to outstanding mathematicians regardless of nationality.
The Abel Prize is often described as the “Nobel Prize for mathematics,” an appellation it shares with the Fields Medal. Instituted in 1936, the Fields Medal is a highly prestigious mathematical award often considered the pinnacle of mathematical achievement. Unlike the Abel, the Fields Medal is awarded every four years, and its recipients must be under 40 years of age.
While the Abel Prize and Fields Medal are only two of many renowned awards in the field of pure mathematics, it’s also noteworthy that mathematics – as the theoretical language of science – underpins much of the work of past and present Nobel Prize recipients in a variety of fields.
The work of 2016 Nobel Prize for Physics Laureates David J. Thouless, Duncan Haldane and Michael Kosterlitz, for example, hinges on topology, the mathematical study of geometrical properties unaffected by continuous deformations. John Forbes Nash was awarded the 1994 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his work in game theory, which employs mathematical models; he later won the 2015 Abel Prize. Even Bertrand Russell, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950, was a renowned mathematician: his works include Foundations of Geometry, Principles of Mathematics and Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy.
Nick Nedeljkovic is a freelance writer and blogger from Sydney. With a love of learning and more degrees than he can afford, he’s a passionate advocate for education in all its forms.