For kids: a different kind of gold medal

Nobel Prizes honor men and women who've made the world a better place.

University Photography/Courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections/Cornell University Library
Winners: Roald Hoffmann lectures at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
Courtesy of Wellcome Images
Nobel Laureate Frederick Sanger stands in front of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Britain.
Both sides of the Nobel medal for physics and chemistry are shown.

Roald Hoffmann can still recall the morning of Oct. 19, 1981, when an announcement came over the radio: He had just won the Nobel Prize for chemistry. "I was fixing my bike in the garage," the professor said from his office at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. "My first thought was I had better call my mother before the phone starts ringing!"

Dr. Hoffmann won the award for using a set of mathematical rules, called quantum mechanics, to explain the nature of chemical reactions.

For most people, topics such as quantum mechanics probably won't arouse as much interest as, say, the Super Bowl or NASCAR racing. But for scientists with a passion for such things, the Nobel Prize announcements each October are an exciting time.

British scientist Frederick Sanger received news of his Nobel Prize win in 1958. Twenty-two years later, Dr. Sanger stunned the world and won a second Nobel Prize. Only three other people have been awarded the prestigious prize twice.

Dr. Sanger won his awards for work with proteins and nucleic acids, two classes of important compounds in cells. Today, the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridgeshire, England, is named in honor of Dr. Sanger and continues his research in molecular biology and genetics.

"It is, of course, very exciting to have such an important recognition of my work," writes Dr. Sanger in a letter from his home in Cambridgeshire. "But the real pleasure was in the work itself. Scientific research is like an exploration of a voyage of discovery [with] scientists working together as a team for the good of humanity."

Which is precisely why Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel created the awards more than 100 years ago. Today, the Nobel Prize recognizes great achievements in the fields of chemistry, physics, and physiology/medicine, as well as in literature, peace, and economics.

Nobel was able to fund the award from the fortune he made by inventing dynamite. By mixing highly unstable nitroglycerin into a paste with a finely powdered sand, Nobel found it could be handled more safely. It was widely used in mining to blast rocks and carve out tunnels.

In later years, Nobel was distressed when his invention was adopted for military purposes and caused many deaths and injuries. So in 1895, a year before he died, Nobel decided to use his fortune for a good cause. In his will, he left about $4 million (equivalent to over $170 million today) to establish the Nobel Prize. Each award is now worth more than $1 million, although it is often split between two or three people. In addition to the money, each winner also receives a gold medal.

Gustaf Arrhenius, a scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California (and whose grandfather won a Nobel Prize in 1903), tells of the fascinating journey of one of those medals.

Dr. Arrhenius's father-in-law was George de Hevesy, a Hungarian scientist who worked in Denmark during World War II. One day, Hevesy was visited by Max von Laue, a German scientist and Nobel Prize winner, who needed help.

This was a dangerous time to be asking for favors because the Nazis were marching across Europe killing people and stealing valuables, such as artworks, jewelry, and precious metals.

"Von Laue had smuggled [his medal] out of Germany while on a lecture trip to Denmark and gave it to Hevesy for safekeeping," explained Dr. Arrhenius. "That was highly illegal and severely punishable."

To protect his friend (and himself) from probable execution if the medal was discovered when the Nazis occupied Denmark, Hevesy placed the medal in a solution of two strong acids called aqua regia, Dr. Arrhenius says. Hevesy watched as the medal began to slowly dissolve and form a green liquid, which he stored on a shelf in his lab. "The Germans raided the lab and stole some silver," said Dr. Arrhenius. "But they did not pay attention to the bottle with the murky green solution!"

Dr. Arrhenius says von Laue was initially angry when he learned his precious medal had been dissolved. But after the war, the gold was recovered, remade into a Nobel medal, and returned to its original owner!

As important as the medal was to Dr. von Laue – and to all the other scientists who have been recognized for their achievements with a Nobel Prize – the award is not just about winning a gold medal or a substantial amount of money. It's a rare opportunity for the scientific community to honor the men and women who have dedicated their lives to making people's lives better.

"I think the Nobel Prize is great," says Dr. Hoffmann, because it's an honor for which "knowledge and wisdom are celebrated."

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