What would you do if you saw your obituary?

Francis H.C. Crick’s Nobel Prize Medal and Nobel Diploma, awarded in 1962 for his work related to DNA molecules, sold for $2.27 million at an April 2013 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

In 1888, a French newspaper published Alfred Nobel’s obituary with the following title: “Le marchand de la mort est mort” or “The merchant of death is dead.”

In reality, it was actually his brother Ludvig who had died, but Alfred was appalled that this kind of sendoff could tarnish his own professional legacy. One presumes that the only error was the mix-up in names since the sobriquet seemed apt given Alfred’s contributions to the effectiveness of substances that resulted in death.

In a complicated maneuver, the inventor of dynamite attempted to rectify future obits by posthumously donating the majority of his estate (94 percent) to the establishment of the Nobel Prizes, designed to expunge his reputation for all the deaths resulting from his explosive product. It was only partially successful since he was accused of treason against France for selling Ballistite (a smokeless propellant composed of two explosives) to Italy. The French forced him to leave Paris and he moved to Sanremo, Italy, where he died in 1896. There were five Nobel categories with an emphasis on “peace” … for obvious reasons.

A native of Stockholm, Nobel made a fortune when he invented dynamite in 1867 as a more reliable alternative to nitroglycerin. As a chemist and engineer, he basically revolutionized the field of explosives. Some accounts give him credit for 355 inventions. In 1895, a year before his death, he signed the final version of his will, which established the organization that would bear his name and “present prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.”

Nobel’s family contested the will and the first prizes were not handed out until 1901. Among the first winners were German physicist Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, who discovered X-rays, and German microbiologist Emil Adolf von Behring, who developed a treatment for diphtheria. The Nobel Prizes were soon recognized as the most prestigious in the world. Except for war-related interruptions, prizes have been awarded virtually every year. The category of economics was added in 1969.

The first American to receive a Nobel was President Theodore Roosevelt, who garnered the prize in 1906 after he helped mediate an end to the Russian-Japanese war. The German-born American scientist Albert Michelson claimed the physics prize the next year. However, the peace and literature prizes would become the most familiar to Americans and are some of the most controversial. Critics voiced concerns over Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson (1919), George Marshall (1953) and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (1973). More recently, winners have included Al Gore (2007) for making an Oscar-winning documentary on climate change, and Barack Obama (2009) “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” (for more, see Obama’s Wars by Bob Woodward).

William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck and Toni Morrison generally have escaped criticism, as have multiple winners like Marie Curie (the first woman in 1911, and in two separate categories), and Linus Pauling, among others. The Red Cross has snagged three. From a personal standpoint, the most obvious non-winner is Mahatma Gandhi, or as someone quipped, “Gandhi can do without a Nobel Prize, but can the Nobel Committee do without Gandhi?”

I think not.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Here’s Why Linus Pauling is Among Our Greatest Scientists

A lot that included Linus Pauling’s signature was offered in January 2017.

By Jim O’Neal

Serious writers about Albert Einstein almost invariably include two episodes in his life. The first is the year 1905, when he published four stunning scientific papers. The first explained how to measure molecules in a liquid; the second explained how to determine their movement. The third was a revolutionary concept that described how light rays come in packets called photons. The fourth merely changed the world!

A second highlight deals with a “fudge factor” Einstein (1879-1955) called a “cosmological constant,” whose only purpose was to cancel out the troublesome cumulative effects of gravity on his masterful general theory of relativity. He would later call it “the biggest blunder of my life.” Personally, I prefer a much more simplistic observation that perfectly captures his nonchalance. The poet Paul Valéry (1871-1945) once asked him if he had a notebook to keep track of all his ideas. A rather amused Einstein quickly replied, “Oh, no. That’s not necessary. It is very seldom I have one.”

History is replete with examples of people who had a good year. It was 1941 for Yankees great Joe DiMaggio when he hit in 56 consecutive games, and Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs in 1927. For Bobby Jones, it was 1930, when he won all four of golf’s major championships. Some people have good days, like Isaac Newton when he observed an apple falling from a tree and instantly conceptualized his theory of gravity.

Linus Pauling was different. His entire life was filled with curiosity, followed by extensive scientific research to understand the factors that had provoked him to wonder why. Pauling was born in 1901. His father died in 1910, leaving his mother to figure out how to support three children. Fortunately, a young school friend got an inexpensive chemistry set as a gift and that was enough to spark Pauling’s passion for research. He was barley 13, but the next 80 years were spent delving into the world of the unknown and finding important answers to civilization’s most complex issues.

He left high school without a diploma (two credits short that a teacher wouldn’t let him make up), but then heard about quantum mechanics and in 1926 won a Guggenheim Fellowship to study the subject under top physicists in Europe. (He was eventually given an honorary high school diploma … after he won his first Nobel Prize.) By the late 1920s and early 1930s, Pauling was busy cranking out a series of landmark scientific papers explaining the quantum-mechanical nature of chemical bonds that dazzled the scientific community.

Eventually, he returned to the California Institute of Technology (with his honorary high school diploma) to teach the best and brightest of that era. Robert Oppenheimer (of the Manhattan Project) unsuccessfully tried to recruit him to build the atomic bomb, but failed (presumably because he also tried to seduce Pauling’s wife). However, Pauling did work on numerous wartime military projects … explosives, rocket propellants and an armor-piercing shell. It’s a small example of how versatile he was. In 1948, President Truman awarded him a Presidential Medal for Merit.

In 1954, he won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his research on the chemical bond and its application to the elucidation of the structure of complex substances … which I shall not try to explain. And along the way, he became a passionate pacifist, joining the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, chaired by Einstein, in an effort “to warn the people of the pending dangers of nuclear weapons.” His reward was to be called a communist; he had his passport revoked and his patriotism challenged, along with many others, in the dark days of McCarthyism.

In 1958, he petitioned the United Nations, calling for the cessation of nuclear weapons. In addition to his wife, it was signed by over 11,000 scientists from 50 countries. First ban the bomb, then ban nuclear testing, followed by a global treaty to end war, per se. He received a second Nobel Prize for Peace in 1963, but that was for trying to broker an early peace with Vietnam, making him one of only four people to win more than one prize, including Marie Curie in 1903 (physics) and 1911 (chemistry). His other awards are far too numerous to mention. As an aside, he died in one of my favorite places: Big Sur, Calif., at age 93.

Sadly, in later life, his reputation was damaged by his enthusiasm for alternative medicine. He championed the use of high-dose vitamin C as a defense against the common cold, a treatment that was subsequently shown to be ineffective (though there’s some evidence it may shorten the length of colds). I still take it and see scientific articles more frequently about the benefit of infused vitamin C being tested in several cancer trials.

If he were still working on it, let’s say the smart money would be on Pauling.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].