Why is there no Nobel Prize in Mathematics?

brought to you by
The Nobel Prize Internet Archive
Why no Math?!

Six Nobel Prizes are awarded each year, one in each of the following categories: literature, physics, chemistry, peace, economics, and physiology & medicine. Notably absent from this list is an award for Mathematics. The reason for this conspicuous omission has been subject of extensive speculations, some of which are discussed below.

We have also included our visitors responses and commentaries and why they believe Mathematics was not included as a Nobel category. If you want to post your opinion, feel free to post your opinions.
[ Particularly insightful essays may be included on this page. If you do not want your response published, please note so in the feedback form. ]

Afterword: Not to be left out of the Big Award movement, mathematicians of the world decided to fight back. At the 1924 International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM) in Toronto, a resolution was adopted that at each ICM, two gold medals should be awarded to recognize outstanding mathematical achievement. A hyperlinked list of all Fields medal laureates is presented here.

In 2002, the Niels Henrik Abel Memorial Fund was established to award the Abel Prize for outstanding scientific work in the field of mathematics. The prize amount is 6 million NOK (about 750,000 Euro) and was awarded for the first time on 3 June 2003. It is awarded yearly by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters in March or April.

The storie continues...

The following information is courtesy the sci.math newsgroup's FAQ list which can be found in its original form here.

Nobel prizes were created by the will of Alfred Nobel, a notable Swedish chemist.

One of the most common -and unfounded- reasons as to why Nobel decided against a Nobel prize in math is that [a woman he proposed to/his wife/his mistress] [rejected him because of/cheated him with] a famous mathematician. Gosta Mittag-Leffler is often claimed to be the guilty party.

There is no historical evidence to support the story.

For one, Mr. Nobel was never married.

There are more credible reasons as to why there is no Nobel prize in math. Chiefly among them is simply the fact he didn't care much for mathematics, and that it was not considered a practical science from which humanity could benefit (a chief purpose for creating the Nobel Foundation).

Further, at the time there existed already a well known Scandinavian prize for mathematicians. If Nobel knew about this prize he may have felt less compelled to add a competing prize for mathematicians in his will.

Source: "The Mathematics of Sonya Kovalevskaya" by Roger Cooke (Springer-Verlag, New York etc., 1984, II.5.2, p. 90-91:

Here are some relevant facts:

  1. Nobel never married, hence no ``wife''. (He did have a mistress, a Viennese woman named Sophie Hess.)

  2. Gosta Mittag-Leffler was an important mathematician in Sweden in the late 19th-early 20th century. He was the founder of the journal Acta Mathematica, played an important role in helping the career of Sonya Kovalevskaya, and was eventually head of the Stockholm Hogskola, the precursor to Stockholms Universitet. However, it seems highly unlikely that he would have been a leading candidate for an early Nobel Prize in mathematics, had there been one - there were guys like Poincare and Hilbert around, after all.

  3. There is no evidence that Mittag-Leffler had much contact with Alfred Nobel (who resided in Paris during the latter part of his life), still less that there was animosity between them for whatever reason. To the contrary, towards the end of Nobel's life Mittag-Leffler was engaged in ``diplomatic'' negotiations to try to persuade Nobel to designate a substantial part of his fortune to the Hogskola. It seems hardly likely that he would have undertaken this if there was prior bad blood between them. Although initially Nobel seems to have intended to do this, eventually he came up with the Nobel Prize idea - much to the disappointment of the Hogskola, not to mention Nobel's relatives and Fraulein Hess.

  4. According to the very interesting study by Elisabeth Crawford, ``The Beginnings of the Nobel Institution'', Cambridge Univ. Press, 1984, pages 52-53:

    However, Sister Mary Thomas a Kempis discovered a letter by R. C. Archibald in the archives of Brown University and discussed its contents in "The Mathematics Teacher" (1966, pp.667-668). Archibald had visited Mittag-Leffler and, on his report, it would seem that M-L *believed* that the absence of a Nobel Prize in mathematics was due to an estrangement between the two men. (This at least is the natural reading, but not the only possible one.)

  5. A final speculation concerning the psychological element. Would Nobel, sitting down to draw up his testament, presumably in a mood of great benevolence to mankind, have allowed a mere personal grudge to distort his idealistic plans for the monument he would leave behind?
Nobel, an inventor and industrialist, did not create a prize in mathematics simply because he was not particularly interested in mathematics or theoretical science. His will speaks of prizes for those ``inventions or discoveries'' of greatest practical benefit to mankind. (Probably as a result of this language, the physics prize has been awarded for experimental work much more often than for advances in theory.)

However, the story of some rivalry over a woman is obviously much more amusing, and that's why it will probably continue to be repeated.


Sci.math USENET newsgroup's FAQ list.

Mathematical Intelligencer, vol. 7 (3), 1985, p. 74.

The Beginnings of the Nobel Institution. Elisabeth Crawford. Cambridge Univ. Press, 1984.

Vox Populi

What's your opinion? We'll like to know!
[ Particularly insightful essays may be included on this page. If you do not want your response published, please note so in the feedback form. ]

On Oct 10 09:15:56 EDT 2007 Mary wrote:

On Tue Jul 1 05:00:17 2003 S.Maheswaran wrote:

On Tue Jun 3 00:46:44 2003 Norman Blakley West II wrote:

On Tue Apr 8 15:01:28 2003 James Barclay wrote:

On Sat Feb 15 10:17:30 2003 Tariq wrote:

On Wed Dec 18 17:30:41 2002 George Petts wrote:

On Mon, 9 Oct 2000 Karl Hao wrote:

[ Back to The Nobel Prize Internet Archive ]
[ Literature * Peace * Chemistry * Physics * Economics * Medicine ]
Copyright © 1996-2003 Ona Wu. All rights reserved.