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ON ALFRED NOBEL AND GÖSTA MITTAG-LEFFLER—A RUMOR SQUELCHED PART 1

UNBEKNOWNST TO Alfred Nobel’s family, friends, and colleagues, this Swede bequeathed 94 percent of his fortune to establishing five annual prizes: in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace. These were first awarded in 1901; the sixth prize, in economics, wasn’t established until 1969.

But none in mathematics?

Let’s immediately squelch the oft-told rumor that Swedish mathematician Gösta Mittag-Leffler was sleeping with Nobel’s wife, or maybe his mistress, Nobel found out, and that’s why there’s no Nobel Prize in Mathematics.

You haven’t heard this rumor before? Well, come sit next to me. What follows are tidbits gleaned from a variety of sources, including some that may be considered learned (emphasis on the second syllable). Today in Part 1, I introduce the two principals, Nobel and Mittag-Leffler. Tomorrow, things get complicated.

Alfred Bernard Nobel, 1833–1896, Swedish chemist, engineer, inventor, businessman, and philanthropist.

Alfred Nobel made his fortune by devising and manufacturing explosives that were safer than nitroglycerin. In one sense, “safer” was easy to achieve, nitro being notoriously unstable. (It’s the bottled milky liquid that baddies aggressively wave around in old police dramas.)

Nobel invented the more stable dynamite (1867), more powerful gelignite (1875), and then even better ballistite (1887), a predecessor to cordite. He thereby earned the nickname Le marchand de la mort, “the merchant of death,” and was accused of high treason by the French for selling ballistite to Italy. A long-time resident of Paris, Nobel hightailed it to San Remo, Italy, in 1891. All this weighed heavily on the man, because he considered himself a pacifist. Nobel died in San Remo in 1896.

Magnus Gustaf (Gösta) Mittag-Leffler, 1846–1927, Swedish mathematician.

Gösta Mittag-Leffler, a half-generation behind Nobel, completed his Ph.D. in mathematics in 1872. In time, he was a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and some 30 other learned societies.

In 1882, Mittag-Leffler founded Acta Mathematica, continuing today as a prestigious mathematical journal. Sweden’s King Oscar II was a royal sponsor. Part of the funding came from the fortune of Mittag-Leffler’s wife, Signe Lindfors, who was of a wealthy Finnish family.

Mittag-Leffler was an early advocate of women’s rights. For example, in 1889 he was instrumental in Sofia Kovalevskaya’s appointment as a full professor of mathematics at the University College of Stockholm (now Stockholm University).

Sofia Vasilyevna Kovalevskaya, 1850–1891, Russian mathematician, the first woman to obtain a doctorate (in the modern sense) in mathematics, the first appointed to a full professorship, one of the first to edit a scientific journal.

As a member of the Nobel Prize Committee in 1903, Mittag-Leffler persuaded others to award that year’s prize in physics jointly to Marie Curie as well as to her husband Pierre.

Debunking any Mittag-Leffler liaison comes relatively easy: Nobel never had a wife. As for a Nobel mistress, Wikipedia cites Austro-Bohemian Countess Bertha Kinsky as his personal secretary in 1876, though “after only a brief stay she left him to marry her previous lover, Baron Arthur Gundaccar von Suttner.”

Countess Bertha Kinsky, 1843–1914, Austro-Bohemian pacifist and novelist. After 1876, Baroness Bertha von Suttner. Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, 1905. Image from 1873.

And then there was Sofie Hess, Nobel’s Viennese mistress. She enters our tale tomorrow in Part 2. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2018

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