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ON ALFRED NOBEL AND GÖSTA MITTAG-LEFFLER—A RUMOR SQUELCHED PART 2

ADDRESSING THE RUMOR of why there’s no Nobel Prize in Mathematics, yesterday’s SimanaitisSays wrote about the two principals, Alfred Nobel himself and fellow Swede and mathematician Gösta Mittlag-Leffler. It concluded hinting at the involvement of Sofie Hess, Nobel’s mistress of long standing. The tale continues here in Part 2.

Sofie Hess, Viennese-born, was the mistress of Alfred Nobel from 1876 to 1894. Image from Majda Širca.

Sophie Hess was working in a flowership when she met Alfred Nobel in 1876. He was 43; she was 18 or 20. In Burton Feldman’s The Nobel Prize: A History of Genius, Controversy and Prestige, she is described as “pretty and vulgar and a little stupid, kind-hearted but bored except when talking about herself or gossiping about others.” The Nobel/Hess liaison lasted for 18 years, 1876 until two years before Nobel’s 1896 death.

The Nobel Prize: A History of Genius, Controversy and Prestige, by Burton Feldman, Arcade Publishing, 2001.

Matters got complicated indeed in 1891, when Sofie announced she was pregnant, not by Nobel but by a Hungarian cavalry officer. According to Feldman, “The cavalry officer, by army code, was obliged to marry Sofie, but the scandal also forced him to resign his commission. He became a champagne salesman and, immediately after the marriage ceremony, vanished—or almost: he started writing Nobel for money, in vain.”

Alfred Nobel and Sofie Hess had a complex relationship. According to A Nobel Affair, the Correspondence between Alfred Nobel and Sofie Hess, she “had asked for an annuity of ten thousand florins (SH Letter 34); Nobel left her only six thousand florins in his will. As he pointed out, a family of four could comfortably live on two thousand florins a year (Letter 197).” In total, the collected letters include 211 from Nobel and 41 from Hess.

A Nobel Affair: The Correspondence between Alfred Nobel and Sofie Hess, edited and translated by Erika Kummel, University of Toronto Press, 2017.

What about a rumored Mittag-Leffler/Hess Affair?

Nobel’s correspondences of many sorts were released only in 1955. Mittag-Leffler, something of a mathematical historian, also left an extensive paper trail. There’s no record of Sofie Hess ever meeting Gösta Mittag-Leffler. And, besides, as described yesterday here at SimanaitisSays, this Swedish mathematician seemed an all-around good fellow.

Any Alfred Nobel/Gösta Mittag-Leffler dissension appears to have come from business matters, not personal relationships. My source on this is Howard Eves’ In Mathematical Circles, Quadrants III and IV. Eves’ view: “At one time the great Swedish mathematician G.M. Mittag-Leffler (1846-1927) was a man of considerable wealth, and in accumulating his fortune, he antagonized a number of people, in particular Alfred Nobel…. At the time the prizes were set up… Nobel asked his advisers, if there should be a prize in mathematics, in their opinion might Mittag-Leffler ever win it? Since Mittag-leffler was such an able and famous mathematician, they had to admit that such would indeed be a possibility. ‘Let there be no Nobel Prize in Mathematics, then’ Alfred Nobel ordered.”

Other mathematical sources investigated, among them E.T. Bell’s Men of Mathematics, James R. Newman’s The World of Mathematics, and The Princeton Companion to Mathematics, had nary a mention of any Mittag-Leffler/Nobel link.

With all due respect to the late Professor Eves, I’m tempted to write, Även om inte sant, väl sagt, Swedish for that old Italian adage, Se non e vero, ma ben travata. Loosely, “It may not be true, but it’s a good story.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2018

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