Thursday, November 24, 2016

Nobel Medals and $

History of Science
Environmental & Science Education
by Edward Hessler

I noticed several announcements that the 1994 medal for the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel awarded to John F. Nash, Jr. was to be auctioned at Sotheby's in New York, October 17. This includes the original red Morocco case. Its estimate is valued at $1.5 to $4 million. Nash received the honor for contributions to non-cooperative game theory made while he was a graduate student at Princeton University.
John F. Nash, Jr. [Wikimedia Commons]

Nash shared the economics award with John C. Harsangi and Reinhard Selton. The press release from the Nobel Foundation provides information about the three honorees and their contributions. Nash's work turned upside down 150 years of Adam Smith's ideas of me-first, self-interest in decision making.

Auction results may be seen here. There you will find photographs, full details about the medal, a film clip, a thorough catalog description of Nash's life and contributions, and personal remembrances.

Nash's life is told in Sylvia Nasar's beautifully told and carefully researched biography, A Beautiful Mind. His career was interrupted for some thirty years by schizophrenia from which he recovered, returned to work and later received his Nobel prize. The book was later made into a film to very mixed reviews.

This made me wonder about the fate of Nobel Prize medals. I had known that some were auctioned but not many of the details. An article at for October 3, 2015 provides some details and a few of these are found below...

— 889 medals have been awarded in the past 114 years (to 2015). The awards are for what is regarded pioneering, breakthrough work in these areas: chemistry, literature, medicine, peace, physics and since 1969, economics

— The price range has been $13,650 (at today's rate) to $4.76 million. The former is for the Nobel Peace prize medal awarded to French Prime Minister Aristide Briand in 1924. The latter is for James Watson's 1962 medal in physiology or medicine in 1962. The award was for elucidating the structure of DNA and shared with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins. Crick's medal was auctioned for about half the amount of Watson's.

— Watson's medal auction deserves a little more detail. His medal was auctioned while he was still alive (December 2014) which is somewhat unusual. The Russian billionaire, Alisher Usmanov purchased the medal and then returned it to Watson in gratitude for his work. Watson sold the medal because he "needed the money." The reason was for some very James Watson-like behavior for which see here.

There is one other Nobel awardee whose medal was sold while still living — Leon Lederman, physics, age 93, May 2016. It was sold in an on-line auction ($765,000) with the proceeds used for treatment and care of his dementia.
Nobel Prize Medal [Wikipedia]

According to an Associated Press release May 25, 2016, 19 Nobel prize medals have gone to auction.

An entry from the Nobel Foundation on the medals describes their design and fascinating details including how they are inscribed. There you will find a film on how they are manufactured. What about the gold which all of us are interested in? The website notes that Up to 1980 the "Swedish" medals, each weighing approximately 200 g and with a diameter of 66 mm, were made of 23 carat gold. Since then they have been made of 18 carat recycled gold. The weight is set to 175 g for all medals, except for the Medal for the Prize in Economic Sciences. Its weight is set to 185 g.

One of the most remarkable stories about the medals involves the Hungarian physical chemist Georg Karl von Hevesy. von Hevesy was working in the laboratory of Niels Bohr when the Germans invaded Denmark in World War II. The German government prohibited German nominees/recipients from accepting or keeping the prizes. Furthermore, they forbade any gold leaving Germany. They wanted the gold.

Two medalists had sent their medals to Denmark for safe-keeping where, while the German army was approaching, von Hevesy dissolved the Nobel Prize medals of Max von Laue (1914) and James Franck (1925) in aqua regia. von Hevesy placed the resulting orange solution on a high laboratory shelf where it remained ignored (and safe) until after the war! von Hevesy then precipitated the gold from the acid solution and the gold was returned to the Nobel Foundation. There, the Nobel medals were re-cast and then re-presented to Laue and Franck.

Aqua regia also known as "royal water" and "kings water," is a potent mixture of two acids, hydrochloric and nitric. Its name calls attention to the property that it can dissolve the noble medals, gold and platinum.
Aqua regia, dissolving gold. [Wikimedia Commons]

NPR's Robert Krulwich did a wonderful program on this story which also includes a link to a video showing the dissolution in action. It is not a fast reaction. The re-casting of the medals and their presentation to the original laureates is sweet in and of itself. It is even sweeter. von Hevesy was awared a Nobel prize in chemistry in 1943. Niels Bohr who was the director of the institute where von Hevesy worked had sold his medal to raise money for the Finnish Relief effort. An anonymous buyer (Krulwich refers to him as Mr. Anonymous) purchased AND later returned the medal to the Danish Historical Museum of Fredrikborg where it still resides.

Bohr was one of the giants of theoretical physics in the early to middle part of the last century. He did truly foundational work in atomic structure and in quantum physics, a well-founded description of nature that says at its fundamental levels, it is probabilistic. In addition, Bohr's fingerprints on physics are everywhere. He profoundly influenced and was a mentor to many, if not all the most brilliant physicists of that fertile era in theoretical physics.  Bohr received the Nobel prize in physics in 1922.

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