A Prize for the Benefit of Mankind

People around the world are familiar with the prestigious Nobel Prize—an achievement award offered to persons who have, as the prize’s founder put it, “conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” The prize is offered in six categories: physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, peace, and economics. 2023’s winners include the following:

  • Pierre Agostini, Ferenc Krausz, and Anne L’Huillier in physics “for experimental methods that generate attosecond pulses of light for the sturdy of electron dynamics in matter.”
  • Moungi G. Bawendi, Louis E. Brus, and Aleksey I. Yekimov in chemistry “for the discovery and synthesis of quantum dots.”
  • Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissman in physiology or medicine “for their discoveries concerning nucleoside base modifications that enabled the development of effective mRNA vaccines against COVID-19.”
  • Jon Fosse in literature “for his innovative plays and prose which give voice to the unsayable.”
  • Narges Mohammadi in peace “for her fight against the oppression of women in Iran and her fight to promote human rights and freedom for all.”
  • Claudia Goldin in economics “for having advanced our understanding of women’s labour market outcomes.”

The Nobel Prize fund was established in the will of Alfred Nobel, a Swedish inventor, on November 27, 1895. He left most of his wealth to the fund and was very particular about how the prizes were to be chosen and who was to choose them.

He wrote, “The interest is to be divided into five equal parts and distributed as follows: one part to the person who made the most important discovery in the field of physics; one par tot the person who made the most important chemical discovery or improvement; one part to the person who made the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine; one part to the person who, in the field of literature, produced the most outstanding work in an idealistic direction; and one part to the person who has done the most or best to advance fellowship among nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies, and the establishment and promotion of peace congresses.”

These five prizes were first awarded in 1901. The prize in economics was established in 1968 by the Swedish bank, Sveriges Riksbank, in memory of Alfred Nobel and has been awarded with the rest since that time.

The winners of the Nobel prizes are chosen by committees from establishments identified by Alfred Nobel. The Swedish Academy of Sciences chooses for physics and chemistry. The Karolinska Institute in Stockholm chooses for physiology or medicine. The Swedish Academy chooses for literature, and the Norwegian Sorting chooses for peace. Nobel specifically noted that “no consideration be given to nationality, but that the prize be awarded to the worthiest person.”

Thousands of nominations are sent to these committees every year, and they do intense research into the accomplishments of each nominee before choosing the winner. The winners are announced in autumn and awarded the prize on December 10, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death. Some notable winners of the Nobel Prize are Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, Ernest Hemingway, Nelson Mandela, and Barack Obama.

Learn more here:

  1. https://www.nobelprize.org/all-nobel-prizes-2023/
  2. https://www.nobelprize.org/alfred-nobel/alfred-nobels-will/
  3. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/first-nobel-prizes-awarded
  4. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Nobel-Prize/The-prizes
  5. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Alfred-Nobel

The Royal Wedding That Started the Hype

On November 20, 1947, then Princess Elizabeth married Philip Mountbatten. The two were married in Westminster Abbey in front of 2,000 guests. This was the first royal wedding to be broadcast via radio to listeners around the world. It was the first time average people around the world could participate in an extravagant affair such as a royal wedding.

This was the beginning of a tradition of accessibility surrounding royal weddings. Since Princess Elizabeth’s wedding, royal weddings have become a worldwide obsession with people throwing parties, buying branded wedding merchandise, and following every step of the planning and ceremony from their own homes.

Princess Elizabeth and Philip Mountbatten, third cousins through Queen Victoria, met at a very young age. Years later when Philip left to serve in the Royal Navy during WWII, he and Princess Elizabeth wrote letters to each other. Upon his return home, Princess Elizabeth and Philip began a serious relationship. The princess’ family was not thrilled by the match, but Elizabeth would not change her mind about Philip. They became engaged on July 8, 1947.

Post-war, almost everything was rationed and times were hard for most British subjects; however, a lavish wedding was planned by Prime Minister Winston Churchill who said the royal wedding should be “a flash of colour on the hard road we have to travel.” The wedding cost £30,000, a sum worth approximately £1.5 million today. Churchill was right. The wedding was of great interest to people around the world and approximately 200 million of them tuned in to listen to the BBC broadcast. Since then, the interest in royal weddings has only grown. About 2 billion people worldwide watched the televised wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

Learn more here:

  1. https://www.royal.uk/70-facts-about-queen-and-duke-edinburghs-wedding
  2. https://www.cnn.com/interactive/2021/04/uk/special-relationship-prince-philip-and-queen-romance-intl-cmd/
  3. https://britishheritage.com/royals/queen-elizabeth-ii-prince-philips-wedding
  4. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/09/style/harry-meghan.html#:~:text=LONDON%20%E2%80%94%20The%20wedding%20of%20Prince,ultimate%2021st%2Dcentury%20fairy%20tale.

The Mother of Modern Physics

On November 7, 1867, Maria Sklodowska was born in Warsaw, Poland. Born to two teachers, she was an incredible bright student, distinguishing herself among her classmates. Despite this, she was not allowed to attend the University of Warsaw, as enrollment was only open to males. She dreamed of moving abroad to attend a university that allowed women but had no money to do so. With so many obstacles in her way, it may have been hard for her to imagine that she would go on to discover two new elements, win two Nobel Prizes, and become a household name around the world.

In 1891, Maria did finally have enough money to get herself to Paris, where she enrolled at the Sorbonne under the name Marie. She earned degrees in mathematics and physics. While studying at the Sorbonne, Marie met Professor of Physics, Pierre Curie. The two married in 1895. While studying the work of physicist Henri Becquerel, Marie Curie performed experiments on uranium rays. She hypothesized that the rays came from the element’s atomic structure. When this hypothesis proved true, she had discovered radioactivity, a word Curie herself invented.

At this point, Pierre joined his wife’s research. Together they discovered the elements polonium (named after Marie’s home country) and radium. Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize. She was granted the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903, alongside her husband and Henri Becquerel, for her work in radioactivity. She was the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911 for her discovery of polonium and radium. After her husband’s untimely death, Marie Curie took over his professorship, becoming the first woman to teach at the Sorbonne.

Marie Curie died in 1934 as a result of aplastic anemia, a condition that causes the body to cease producing new blood cells. The condition is a known side effect of radiation exposure. Curie’s life and work changed the field of science immutably. Her research led to other discoveries that have changed our understanding of the world, including the discovery of artificial radioactivity and the existence of the neutron. She was the first woman to achieve many things, opening the door for generations of female innovators after her.

Learn more here:

  1. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Marie-Curie/Death-of-Pierre-and-second-Nobel-Prize
  2. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/physics/1903/marie-curie/biographical/
  3. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/madame-curies-passion-74183598/
  4. https://www.biography.com/scientists/marie-curie

Return of the King: The Book of the Millennium

On October 20, 1955, the third volume of The Lord of the Rings, entitled Return of the King, was published. Following the publication of the first two volumes, Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, during the previous year, the third book was very popular. However, the series did not explode in notoriety until the 1960s when young adults latched onto the fantastical world and heroic adventures of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The Lord of the Rings is the best-selling fantasy series of all time. It has even been considered by many as “the book of the millennium.”

J.R.R. Tolkien penned the famous The Lord of the Rings series while working as a professor at Oxford University. In 1937, Tolkien had released his first novel, The Hobbit, as a children’s story. It was incredibly popular, and his publishers looked to him for a sequel. Thus, was The Lord of the Rings born. The 1,100-page book was meant to be one story but was released in three volumes for logistical and financial reasons. Famous poet, W.H. Auden wrote of the series, “If one is to take a tale of this kind seriously, one must feel that, however superficially unlike the world we live in its characters and events may be, it nevertheless holds up the mirror to the only nature we know, our own; in this, too, Mr. Tolkien has succeeded superbly, and what happened in the year of the Shire 1418 in the Third Age of Middle Earth is not only fascinating in A.D. 1954 but also a warning and an inspiration. No fiction I have read in the last five years has given me more joy . . .”

The Lord of the Rings was the first fantasy book of its kind. It included detailed maps, original languages, unique creatures, and alternate history. This is, perhaps, why the books took off as they did. Readers could immerse themselves in a different world, even learning some of Tolkien’s made-up languages. This type of fantasy world has since become very popular, many modern fantasy novels include maps and family trees. The Chairman of the Tolkien Society said, in 2015, that Tolkien created “the archetypal fantasy story with Gandalf, Gollum, hobbits, the Ring now being all-pervasive in popular culture—it’s no wonder that so many authors have followed in his wake.”

Learn more here:

  1. https://www.biography.com/authors-writers/jrr-tolkien
  2. https://www.tolkiensociety.org/2015/10/60th-anniversary-of-the-return-of-the-king/#:~:text=The%20Return%20of%20the%20King%20was%20published%20on%20the%2020,on%2011th%20November%201954.
  3. https://www.tolkienestate.com/writing/the-lord-of-the-rings/
  4. https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1954/10/31/96504978.html?pageNumber=163

Tokyo Rose: American Scapegoat

On October 6, 1949, an American woman named Iva Toguri d’Aquino was the seventh person to be convicted of treason in the United States. She was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison and fined $10,000 for her crimes. What exactly was her crime? Broadcasting a radio show to American troops during WWII.

Iva Ikuko Toguri was born in Los Angeles in 1916. Her parents were immigrants from Japan who had settled in California. Toguri attended school, earned her degree from UCLA, and worked with her father in his shop. A normal American girl, Toguri soon found herself living a nightmare when, in 1941, she traveled to Japan to visit her aunt. Before she could return home to the US, Japanese troops attacked Pearl Harbor, and Toguri found herself stuck in Japan, far from her family, who had been forced into an internment camp.

As she waited out the war, Toguri got a job as a typist at Radio Tokyo where she met Australian POW Major Charles Cousens. He and several other captured Allied soldiers had been brought to Radio Tokyo to be the voices of a Japanese propaganda show intended to discourage US troops posted in the Asia Pacific area. Cousens asked Toguri to be an announcer on the show, Zero Hour. She and dozens of other women who announced on the show became collectively known as “Tokyo Rose” by US troops who listened to it. However, the announcers of the show claimed to be trying to sabotage the propaganda program. Toguri repeatedly joked with her listeners that the show was Japanese propaganda, saying, “Be on your guard, and mind the children don’t hear!”

As the war ended, the US media set its sights on now-married Iva Toguri d’Aquino. Two reporters traveled to Japan, promising d’Aquino money for an exclusive interview. Desperately in need of funds, she agreed to the interview. Once her name was published by the American media, the government moved in to investigate. d’Aquino’s name became synonymous with treason, and years of American upset and aggression were heaped upon her. A year’s investigation yielded no evidence that her show was anything other than “innocuous entertainment.”

It was unfortunate then, that famous radio host, Walter Winchell, was unwilling to let it go. He continued to insist that charges of treason be brought against her. In 1949, the government capitulated to pressure from the media and American public and brought her case to trial. Despite people who testified on her behalf, she was declared guilty, sentenced to a decade in federal prison, and stripped of her American citizenship.

d’Aquino served about six years in prison before being released on good behavior. She fought the government’s deportation efforts and moved to Chicago. In 1976, two of the key witnesses from her 1949 trial came forward to say they were pressured into giving false testimony against d’Aquino. Shortly after, the jury foreman from d’Aquino’s trial said that the jury was pressured by the judge to deliver a guilty verdict. In 1977, President Gerald Ford pardoned Iva d’Aquino and restored her citizenship.

In the decades since the Tokyo Rose debacle, many reasons have been given for the obvious scapegoating of d’Aquino. There were certainly politics, racial discrimination, sexual discrimination, and media bias at play. Iva herself said, “I supposed they found someone and got the job done; they were all satisfied. It was eeny, meeny, miney, and I was moe.”

Learn more here:

  1. https://www.fbi.gov/history/famous-cases/iva-toguri-daquino-and-tokyo-rose
  2. https://www.history.com/news/how-tokyo-rose-became-wwiis-most-notorious-propagandist
  3. https://prologue.blogs.archives.gov/2010/10/06/the-orphan-called-tokyo-rose/
  4. https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Pages/casedetailpre1989.aspx?caseid=332
  5. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1468-0424.2010.01584.x
  6. https://www.seattletimes.com/nation-world/broadcaster-made-tokyo-rose-role-infamous-in-war/

On This Day: Lehman Brothers Files for Bankruptcy

On September 15, 2008, Lehman Brothers, a large investment firm based in the U.S., filed for bankruptcy. The Lehman Brothers Bankruptcy is one of the major events of the 2008 financial crisis. It was the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history and had lasting effects on the world economy.

In the early 2000s, Lehman Brothers became involved in loan origination, acquiring thousands of mortgages, many of which were considered “subprime,” because they were mortgages given to borrowers with high debt-to-income ratios and low credit scores. These mortgages were often given with variable interest rates, meaning the interest rate on the mortgage would change as the Federal Reserve (Fed) raised and lowered it. Banks all over the U.S., including Lehman Brothers were offering these subprime mortgages, creating a false sense of prosperity in the housing market. After obtaining these subprime mortgages, the banks would bundle them with better mortgages and sell them as bonds (called mortgage-backed securities) to other banks and investment firms.

From 2004-2006, the Fed raised the interest rate four points, leaving the borrowers of the subprime mortgages unable to make their mortgage payments. At the same time, home prices were falling, leaving the mortgagees unable to refinance or sell their homes to make their payments. By 2007, the default rate on variable rate mortgages was 29%. The more mortgages that defaulted, the less the mortgage-backed securities were worth, causing banks and investment firms to lose billions of dollars very quickly. Lehman Brothers was one such firm. When their losses were reported, their stock price plummeted. They declared bankruptcy and accounted for over $600 billion in debt.

The bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers was a landmark event in the 2008 financial crisis. It is estimated that American households lost about 26% of their wealth during the crisis. While many of these households never recovered from that loss, unlike the bankers and financial executives that caused the crisis. Richard Fuld, CEO of Lehman Brothers at the time of its collapse, made almost $500 million in the eight years leading up to the bankruptcy.

Learn more here:

  1. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/lehman-brothers-collapses
  2. https://www.britannica.com/money/topic/financial-crisis-of-2007-2008/Effects-and-aftermath-of-the-crisis
  3. https://www.federalreserve.gov/pubs/feds/2008/200859/200859pap.pdf
  4. https://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/story?id=5965360&page=1

September History Hits: Famous September Birthdays

According to the U.S. Social Security Administrations, of the 10 most popular birthdays among Americans, 9 of them are in the month of September. If you have a September birthday, you are in good company. This month has seen the births of hosts of famous figures throughout history, including politicians, artists, and innovators.

Here are a few influential people born in the month of September:

Marquis de Lafayette was born September 6, 1757 to a noble family in France. At the young age of 19, Lafayette traveled to America to fight with the colonists in the American Revolution. He was a close friend of George Washington and convinced the French to send aid to the colonists, leading to the defeat of the British army. He was also an influential figure in the French Revolution and composed the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen,” the credo adopted by the revolutionary National Assembly.

Jane Addams was born September 6, 1860. The second woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize, Addams is seen as a pioneer in the field of social work. She opened Hull House in Chicago which was part childcare center, part night school, public kitchen, gymnasium, and library. She worked with boards and charities in the Chicago area to educate people about childbirth and proper hygiene and sanitation.

Agatha Christie, born September 15, 1890, is considered the best-selling novelist of all time. Christie wrote 74 novels, most of them detective novels. Some of her most notable were The Mysterious Affair at Styles, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and Murder on the Orient Express, each featuring her iconic main character, Hercule Poirot. Her personal life was almost as mysterious as her books—Agatha Christie famously disappeared for 10 days in 1926, though nobody knows exactly where she went or why. Christie’s novels and characters have been adapted in television, movies, books, and plays. Known as the “Queen of Crime,” she helped to pioneer the detective trope that is so popular today.

Jim Henson was born on September 24, 1936. Henson became interested in puppetry while in college. He and his wife, Jane, created a show called Sam and Friends that appeared on a local television channel. It was as part of this show that Henson first created the iconic character Kermit the Frog. His characters became more and more popular, appearing on commercials and other nationally famous television shows. In 1969, Henson signed with Children’s Television Workshop, and they created the still-running children’s television show, Sesame Street.  Here, Henson created characters recognized throughout the world, like Big Bird, Elmo, Cookie Monster, and Oscar the Grouch. In the 1970s, Henson created The Muppet Show. Kermit, Miss. Piggy, Fozzie Bear, and Gonzo won Henson worldwide renown and several major entertainment awards.

These are just a few of the many notable people born in the month of September who have left great legacies across the world. What other famous figures born in September can you think of?

Learn more here:

  1. https://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/19/business/20leonhardt-table.html?_r=1
  2. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Marquis-de-Lafayette/The-French-Revolution
  3.  https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/1931/addams/biographical/
  4. https://www.agathachristie.com/about-christie#discover-more
  5. https://www.biography.com/movies-tv/jim-henson

On This Day: The Invasion of Poland

On September 1, 1939, Hitler commanded German forces to invade Poland, effectively starting World War II. It was this invasion that prompted Britain and France to declare war and realize that Hitler’s plan involved the domination of Europe. This war lead to the death of approximately 70 million soldiers and civilians, including 6 million Jewish citizens who were killed in concentration camps.

When Hitler first came to power, he campaigned under the auspices of returning Germany to its pre-WWI glory. He wanted to reclaim land and power that he believed was taken from Germany during the war. In response to his demands, British and French officials allowed Germany to rebuild its military and annex Austria. The last effort at appeasement was the Munich Agreement, which allowed Germany to occupy an area of Czechoslovakia so long as they promised to resolve any future conflicts peacefully.

On September 1, 1939, Hitler broke the agreements of the Munich Agreement by invading Poland. German forces used the blitzkrieg strategy, which involved the strategic bombing of sites such as railroads, communication lines, and ammunition storage. Invasion by troops on foot and in tanks followed. Once the troops had moved through, German security forces rounded up anyone who Hitler saw as an enemy of the state, generally those who he deemed racially or religiously inferior, and used them as slave laborers.

Poland’s outdated army stood little chance against the Germans especially when the Soviet Union attacked from the opposite border just a few weeks later in accordance with a plan set by Hitler and Stalin. On September 3, 1939, Britain and France declared war against Germany. Six years of brutal, world-wide war followed during which the world witnessed the pitfalls of hate and revenge.

Learn more here:

  1. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/germany-invades-poland
  2. https://www.britannica.com/event/Invasion-of-Poland
  3. https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/invasion-of-poland-fall-1939

On This Day: Debussy and His Rêveries

 Claude Debussy was born on August 22, 1862 in a western suburb of Paris, Saint-Germain-en-Laye. A musical prodigy, Debussy was inspired by the art and literature of his time to create emotional and inspirational compositions that are still studied and enjoyed by musicians today.  

Claude Debussy started to show promise on the piano at the young age of nine. He was enrolled in the Paris Conservatory to study piano and composition. Debussy loved art, music, and poetry and was inspired by them in his works. He drew inspiration from Richard Wagner, Dante Rosetti, Edgar Allen Poe, Claude Monet, Paul Verlaine, and Arthur Rimbaud. Much like the Impressionists and the Symbolists, Debussy’s music rejected traditional modes of composition and uses of instruments. In doing so, Debussy penned iconic works of music such as “Clair de lune,” “La fille aux cheveux de lin,” “La mer,” “Rêverie,” and “Pelléas et Mélisande.”  

In 1910, Debussy was interviewed by a New York Times reporter. In their conversation, Debussy asserted, “. . . there will always be an enormous breach between the soul of the man as he is and the soul he puts into his work. A man portrays himself in his work, it is true, but only part of himself. In real life, I cannot live up to the ideals I have in music . . . Everything about [art] is an illusion . . . it neither represents the man who produced it, nor life as it is. Art is a most wonderfully beautiful lie, but it is a lie.” The writer ended the piece by saying, “The interviewer looked at M. Debussy and had great difficulty in not shouting, ‘But M. Debussy, you are the absolute contradiction of what you have been saying!’ For as M. Debussy said that the artist and his work were entirely separated, he spoke with such warmth, he was so carried away, that one felt how the work of the French composer is exactly a reproduction of his soul—a sensitive, delicate soul, yet determined and firm. And at that moment, Debussy the man and Debussy the composer, were but one being.”   Learn more here:

  1. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Claude-Debussy/Evolution-of-his-work
  2. https://www.claudedebussy.org/2022/06/claude-debussy-biography.html
  3. https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1910/06/26/104941892.html?pageNumber=21

On This Day: The Last Entry

To date, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, has sold over 30 million copies in 67 languages and is believed to be one of the most widely read books. Anne Frank’s diary gives readers an intimate look into what life was like for a young Jewish girl at the peak of the Nazi reign of terror. Heart-wrenching and inspiring, Frank’s diary should be required reading for everyone.    

Many of us are familiar with the story of Anne Frank. The Nazis were on a crusade against Jewish people, and they didn’t intend to stop in Germany. In 1940, they invaded Poland and the Netherlands, where Anne and her family lived. By 1942, the persecution was so great, Anne’s parents feared for their family, and they went into hiding. Anne was only 13 years old.  

Anne and her family lived in a secret attic space for two years, moving minimally and trying to be as silent as possible. To pass the time, Anne wrote in a small, red-checkered journal. On August 1, 1944, Anne wrote the last entry in her journal. The entry speaks of an internal struggle common to many teenagers: deciding who one wants to be and who they could be. Anne writes:  

As I’ve told you many times, I’m split in two. One side contains my exuberant cheerfulness, my flippancy, my joy in life and, above all, my ability to appreciate the lighter side of things. By that I mean not finding anything wrong with flirtations, a kiss, an embrace, an off-colour joke. This side of me is usually lying in wait to ambush the other one, which is much purer, deeper and finer.  

. . . As I’ve told you, what I say is not what I feel, which is why I have a reputation for being boy-crazy as well as a flirt, a smart aleck and a reader of romances. The happy-go-lucky Anne laughs, gives a flippant reply, shrugs her shoulders and pretends she doesn’t give a darn. The quiet Anne reacts in just the opposite way. If I’m being completely honest, I’ll have to admit that it does matter to me, that I’m trying very hard to change myself, but that I’m always up against a more powerful enemy.

 . . . I just can’t keep it up anymore, because when everybody starts hovering over me, I get cross, then sad, and finally end up turning my hear inside out, the bad part on the outside and the good part on the inside, and keep trying to find a way to become what I’d like to be and what I could be if… if only there were no other people in the world. 

Three days later, Anne’s family was discovered, arrested, and sent to concentration camps. Anne and her sister Margot were sent to Bergen-Belsen. Months later, both sisters died from typhus. Anne’s father, Otto, was the only member of the family to survive. He was the one who found, edited, and published the contents of his daughter’s diary. Thanks to Anne’s courage and her father’s determination, generations of people around the world have access to Anne’s words and the opportunity to reflect on how to prevent such an atrocity from happening again.

Learn more here:  

  1. https://www.annefrank.org/en/anne-frank/who-was-anne-frank/
  2. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-anne-franks-diary-changed-the-world-180957215/
  3. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/anne-frank-arrested-70-years-ago-today-read-her-last-diary-extract-9646390.html

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