Who is the “Nobel” in “Nobel Prize” and what does he have to do with explosions?

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Each year in October, the Nobel Prize committee in Stockholm announces what has become a sort of gold medal for science, literature, and politics. This year’s laureates include Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa in literature and Robert G. Edwards, father of the test tube baby, in medicine. Winners receive a sum usually worth millions of dollars in addition to oodles of prestige.

After you read this, you will always associate the namesake of the prize with the word “boom.” Here’s why:

Alfred Nobel was a chemist and engineer as well as an amateur poet. In the mid-1800s he invented a chemical agent of nitroglycerine and cellulose nitrate, bringing about a smokeless explosive called ballistite. Ballistite was first marketed as blasting caps and was the basis for his next big invention, dynamite.

Near the end of his life a French newspaper called Nobel a merchant of death, prompting him to consider the legacy he was leaving behind. In response, he instructed that his fortune be used to fund a prize promoting fraternity among nations and the reduction of conflict.

The first awards were granted in 1901. Chemistry, economics, literature, medicine and physics, as well as the coveted Peace Prize, make up the menagerie of awards. Recipients, called laureates, receive a gold medal and diploma as well as the above-mentioned cash. The prize may only be given to living individuals and teams of up to three people.

The Peace Prize has is the most controversial award bestowed by the Nobel Committee. The criteria for selecting the winner are cryptic at best; no one knows how laureates are selected or who the contenders are prior to announcement.

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