Chemistry Calendar, December: History of Chemistry and Alfred Nobel

Uploaded by chemistrycalendar on 29.11.2011


The whole of my remaining realizable estate shall be dealt with in the following way:
The capital, invested in safe securities by my executors, shall constitute a fund,
the interest on which shall be annually distributed in the form of prizes
to those who during the preceding year, shall have conferred
the greatest benefit on mankind.
The said interest shall be divided into five equal parts,
one part to the person who shall have made the most important chemical discovery
or improvement...

This segment is from the final will of Alfred Bernhard Nobel,
a Swedish chemist, who died December 10th, 1896.
Today, his Nobel Prize is one of the greatest awards a chemist can receive,
and it symbolizes an historically important discovery.
Let’s take a look at some of those moments!

So Nobel helped create recognition of many of the great discoveries made in science
over the more recent history.
But it’s important to understand
that the knowledge we have at any given time in history
is never the work of only one person.
It’s the result of years of observations and experiments,
past on and built upon through generations.
You could almost say that the history of chemistry
dates back to long before we even called it chemistry...

In fact chemisty has played a role in our lives for thousands of years.
For example the use of early paints, learning to cook and preserve food,
learning to use metals, and combine them to make them stronger.
We found ways to harvest energy,
discovered atoms. "It can't be divided!"
and decribed the elements. Well at least it was a start.
We started to perform experiments and wrote textbooks.
Things started to move forward faster and faster, and many new discoveries were made.
And in the mid 1800's, there was one invention that made a fairly unexpected impact on
the future of chemistry and later lead to the Nobel Prizes.
It was Alfred Nobel’s invention of dynamite.

To learn more about the background of the Nobel Prizes,
we went to talk to professor Bengt Nordén, former member of the Nobel committee.
I am professor Bengt Nordén.
I’m professor of physical chemistry at Chalmers University of Technology.
He was the inventor of dynamite.
And you must understand that dynamite was a fantastic progress.
Before people used nitroglycerin, which was extremely unstable.
A relative of him died, but it was of course before Alfred Nobel died,
because he read the obituary in the newspaper of Cannes.
A writer had mistaken Alfred Nobel for his brother Ludvig,
and the eight years premature obituary wrote: “The merchant of death is dead.
Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people
faster than ever before, died yesterday.”
And this obituary made a picture of him that was very black.
He was Mr. Death himself.
He was behind the wars and so on, dynamite and ballestite.
It made him sad.
I think this too early obituary could have triggered something.
His remaining fortune was $300 million in todays value.
And I think the fact that he, in his will, which is just one hand-written document,
he tells explicitly that it could be any nationality the one who should receive the prize,
and that’s another very important aspect.

For almost a whole year now we have travelled around to document how chemistry
affects our everyday lives.
And it turns out pretty much every chemistry story that we have covered
can be linked to at least one Nobel Prize!
Nobel Prizes in chemistry, but also in the field of physics and medicine.
The main Nobel Prize related to this area was Arvid Carlsson,
and he discovered the molecule dopamine and that had an enormous effect,
continuous on to this day and it's lot of what we do in my lab.
In 1995, when Molina, Rowland and Crutzen got their prize for the increased understanding of
how chemistry is involved in the depletion of the stratospheric ozone.
So we have the DNA structure in 1962.
2006 we got the Nobel Prize for the transcription,
and then finally we had the structure of the ribosome.
So by all these Nobel Prizes we know all the way, in detail,
the transfer from DNA to proteins.

Some other examples are when Adolf von Baeyer got the chemistry prize in 1905
for the synthesis of colors.
Or when Hans Adolff Krebs recieved the medicine prize
for the discovery of the citric acid cycle, part of the cell's energy production.
Or when Shockley, Bardeen and Brattain got the prize in physics for the transistor.
And these are just a few examples, and every year new winners are announced
by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm.

Well, we must understand that not everyone can receive a Nobel Prize.
There are many more great discoveries and advancements being made every year
to help us understand the world we live in a little bit better.
And even if we know a lot now,
the knowledge that we have gathered through history until today
is probably only the beginning as new questions emerge all the time.

So our journey through the history of chemistry is coming to an end,
and I think it's time to wrap things up by the asking one simple question:
What is chemistry?
Well, the best answer we can come up with now is
Chemistry is all around You!