No 490: "Defiance"

Testing your knowledge of what happened this week
Oct. 14 2000 12:00 AM

No 490: "Defiance"

(Continued from Page 1)

Alfred Nobel, whose fortune endowed the eponymous prize, was born in Stockholm in 1833. His father, Immanuel, immediately went bankrupt—it was probably a coincidence—and soon ran off to Russia to make a new start. Alfred's mother, Andrietta, stayed behind and started a grocery store to support the family, a lucky thing for little Alfred, who at age 4 was years away from his successful career blowing things up. Immanuel prospered by building weapons for the czar, devising a naval mine to block British ships threatening St. Petersburg during the Crimean War. The high-tech weaponry of their day, these mines were pretty much just barrels stuffed with explosives and anchored beneath the Gulf of Finland, but there was plenty of money in exploding barrels, and in 1842 Immanuel sent for the family.

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Alfred received a first-class education and by 17 was fluent in Swedish, Russian, French, English, and German, good training for a lad who hoped someday to blow things up all around the world. Studying in Paris, Alfred met Ascanio Sobrero, the inventor of nitroglycerine, the world's most explosive liquid. (Alfred may have filed away that descriptive phrase for future use, should he ever develop his own line of salsa, or he may not have. I don't speak Swedish.) Unfortunately, nitroglycerine could explode unpredictably if subjected to heat and pressure (well, who couldn't?) and was thought to have no practical use.

When the Crimean War ended, Immanuel went bankrupt again. Perhaps he should have gone into the salsa business, but Russia had not yet developed a taste for Mexican food. Or freed the serfs. Instead, he went into the Russian oil business and soon grew enormously wealthy. This time, he didn't send for anyone's family.

Alfred returned to Sweden in 1863 and got on with his nitroglycerine work. After several explosions, including one in which his brother Emil and several others were killed, the local authorities banned nitroglycerine within the Stockholm city limits, so Alfred continued his experiments on a barge on Lake Mälaren. Nothing says "safety" like "barge." He soon found a way to mix nitroglycerine with silica, turning the liquid into a safe and stable paste which could be shaped into rods perfect for insertion into drilling holes. In 1867, he patented this material under the name of dynamite.

Alfred continued his work with explosives and with other chemical inventions, eventually earning 355 patents. He founded factories and laboratories in 20 countries. Although he lived in Paris much of his life, he was constantly traveling. Victor Hugo called him "Europe's richest vagabond," so late one night in 1882, Alfred heaved a few sticks of dynamite into a cafe where Hugo was entertaining his whores. The resulting carnage … no, wait, that last bit never happened. Alfred took the remark as a compliment, probably because it included the word "richest," which has a way of softening things. Despite that, he died in 1896.

His father, Immanuel, immediately went bankrupt yet again, or would have, had he still been living.

High-Voltage Answer

This plastic conducts electricity.

Plastics are ordinarily used as insulating materials, but this new plastic has stimulated chemists around the world to create other polymers that behave like metals or semiconductors. Plastic semiconductors do not work as well as silicon, but they're light, cheap, flexible, and easy to shape, which means they'll find all sorts of applications, and not only as the punch lines to filthy jokes. Some scientists use similar polymers to create a low-cost, low-energy, foldable, video display. 

Uncharacteristically for an award that generally goes to theoretical work, this years Nobel Prizes have honored those devising work with more apparent practical applications, none of which include ingenious kitchen devices.