Philobiblon: A genius or a representative? The Nobel Prize question

Saturday, December 17, 2005

A genius or a representative? The Nobel Prize question

There have been 776 winners of Nobel Prizes - for physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and (more recently) economics - since they began in 1901. Yet were they recognition for astounding, outstanding individuals, or parts of teams and milieus that happened to be picked out of a communal project?

That's the central question of an exhibition that has just arrived at the British Library, Beautiful Minds, the Centennial Exhibition of the Nobel Prize.

One view starts the exhibition, that of Sir Alexander Fleming: "It is the lone worker who makes the first advance in a subject: the details may be worked out by a team, but the prime idea is due to the enterprise, thought and perception of an individual." Yet further on you go back to Lucretius in 55BC: "Nothing can be created out of nothing."

The story certainly begins with one man, the founder of the prizes, Alfred Nobel, who invented dynamite in 1867. He proved himself not just an inventor - with more than 300 patents to his name, for goods ranging from artificial silk to aluminium boats - but a brilliant businessman, growing his explosives empire to nearly 100 factories around the globe. Some of their products - or at least one hopes only their packets - are on display. READ MORE


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