‘those who […] shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.’
― Alfred Nobel, Final Testament
Alfred Nobel was born almost exactly 184 years ago. In his sixty-three years, he claimed 355 inventions, of which, most notoriously, dynamite.
Dynamite comes from the word dunamis, which means ‘power’ in ancient Greek. The invention stabilized the dangerous, volatile liquid explosive, nitroglycerin. It could now be used in mining, construction, demolition; railroads, tunnels, whole cities could be built. Dynamite changed the course of the Nineteenth Century and the structure of our world.
However, dynamite also found its use in warfare; a precursor to smokeless explosives. As did ballistite, another of Nobel’s inventions that would make him millions and kill millions.
One morning, eight years before he died, Nobel read his own obituary. A mistake; the newspaper had confused his brother’s death for his. The headline read:
The Merchant of Death is Dead.
Which made him think of value. His. For all the power he had, what his life, company, fortune, inventions were worth: The Merchant of Death is Dead.
When it was first used around the year 1,300, power meant ‘strength, vigor, might.’ With time, it took on a more subtle, complex meaning: the ability to do, direct or influence.
Power is the ability to change the course of events or behaviors. To change the way people think and live, the way they view the world.
Nobel had already changed the world and the course of its history. But power without a greater purpose is just a big bang. Perhaps he wanted to leave more than craters and dust in his wake, so he rewrote his testament and created the Nobel Prize.
His will stipulated that when he died, his fortune would be used to fund five prizes in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature, and Peace, to those who, in their lives and fields ‘shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.’*
The fund took five years to put in place; no one could believe the will. In 1901, the first prizes were awarded. There have been five hundred and eighty-five since.
The world is littered with powerful men. Big, loud, easy to spot. Men of value are harder to find; they do not make as much noise. Instead they make discoveries, inventions, improvements. Produce work, do the work, to the best of their abilities, for as long as they can, for 'the benefit of mankind.'
And they do, by discovering insulin, which made diabetes treatable. Blood groups, which saved lives by making transfusions possible. Radioactivity, cathode rays, bacteriology. Penicillin, the first antibiotic. Carbon-14 and DNA, thanks to which we now understand the origin of the world and ours.
By ending wars and segregation. Treating the wounded in battlefields. Bringing down walls and stereotypes, halting weapon production lines. Explaining human behavior and psychology, quantum theory, photoelectricity. Sometimes simply clothing the cold, comforting the sick, feeding the hungry. Speaking a truth that strikes a human chord and resonates on.
By compassion, mastery, curiosity, integrity. Hope, selflessness, love. Characteristics that elevate mankind from what we are to what we could be. Our value is in that strive to do good, the possibility that we might. Our power is in the strength, vigor, might with which we try.
* The Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences was added in 1968.