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No Bells at All

But here’s the thing. People are rightly skeptical. I understand that. But really, when you think about it, particularly if you think about it in the context of the history of the Prize, it makes a lot of sense.

Generally, I don’t think a lot about Alfred Nobel and his history. Yes, I am vaguely aware that he established the prizes in his name out of a sort of guilt from making so much money in the scientific furtherance of weapons technology. But sometimes it helps to think about the specifics. So here are a few details of Alfred Nobel’s life and times, to give you an background in which to truly appreciate this choice.

Immanuel Nobel, his father, was in the torpedo business, but went bankrupt after making over the St. Petersburg Explosives Company factory into a tailor shop. The initial success of exploding pants encouraged him in the disastrous investment, and after the attempt to mine the harbor at Brisk (in what is now Belarus) with motion-sensitive projectile spats failed utterly, the Nobel family fortune was in ruins. Young Alfred was forced into indentured servitude with Boston silversmith Ephraim Laphroag; at the tender age of thirty-eight, his hand was permanently disfigured in an industrial accident involving molten cheese. This was to scar him for life.

His obsession with success in his father’s field, however, was not dimmed. He turned his energy into a new torpedo factory, and soon had the largest ammunitions works in Nepal. To this day the Asian Basketball Association team based in Kathmandu is called the Torpedoes. Mr. Nobel’s success was based on technological innovation, rather than the aggressive consolidation of resources and distribution channels exploited by rivals such as Murray Kellogg, Adolphus Brown and Prithva Taramindiadan Root. The Nobels of Nepal were safe to use, easy to deploy, and would not explode under any circumstances. This last advance involved a the addition of an ingredient called purell, or Greek Fire, the chemical makeup of which was known only to Alfred Nobel himself, and one or two of his drinking buddies. When his competitors banded together to hire a mercenary army to steal the technique, he tore up and swallowed the only copy of the instructions, as well as tearing up and swallowing the only copy of a four-act tragedy he had written about the disappearance of Judge Crater. The mercenaries, enraged, frustrated and bored, burned down the factory with him in it; his hand was permanently disfigured in the fire. This was to scar him for life.

Escaping through an underground railway (narrow gauge), he made his way by boat to Burkina Faso, where he gathered enough investment capital to try again. He had his greatest inspiration while setting out from the La Paz harbor: he would clone a vast army of soldiers from the DNA of a single mercenary, the fiercest fighter of them all. This required a long-term investment to find the ideal source of the genetic code. First, he purchased an island in international waters off the coast of Luxembourg. Then, he simultaneously built an elaborate underground laboratory complex and established an international ring of narcotics and prostitution. Finally, he organized a martial arts competition featuring the fiercest and most vicious outlaws, fugitives and desperadoes. Tragically, all of the competitors turned out to be undercover law enforcement agents. Instead of a wretched hive of scum and villainy, he wound up with a highly trained cadre of legally sanctioned killers from governments across the globe. His mercenary army was decimated, and he himself was killed in the ensuing fire, in which his hand was permanently disfigured. This was to scar him for life.

The sudden death of Alfred Nobel at the entrance to his underground lair set off a sequence of automated events that had been intended to reanimate his corpse. The combined efforts of the world’s greatest undercover officers, martial artists and codebreakers were bent on stopping the sequence before it reached critical mass. In the end, MI-8 agent Harris Tweed gave his life in a daring and visually exciting fashion by eating the entire island, permanently disfiguring his hand and preventing his escape. However, the unstable protomatter (or Greek Fire) at the heart of the experiment created an self-cloning superpowered evil monster that became known as Code W, from the Esperanto word waysmeer, meaning underground.

Filled with regret (and protomatter), Mr. Nobel gave up his heretofore relentless quest for better and more deadly weaponry, and devoted himself to cultivating peacetime uses of technology. He wrote a posthumous will leaving the bulk of his vast wealth to a funding in perpetuity a series of Prizes, to be given to scientists, researchers, technicians and villains who had achieved or seemed to be on the track of achieving what he himself could not: an international award. In that testament, he placed the greatest emphasis on the technical awards, to be given in four categories: physiomolecular monotony (popularly known as the Donatello Award), auditory and tendential rigidity (the Fields Medal), tertial hypostacy (or Greek Fire) and semi-transparent jejunosity (the Laurel Crown). These made up what he called “the core hope for the newborn century”.

Ironically, it was a fifth prize that became the most well-known and influential. This waysmeer prize was awarded annually to the person judged to have done the most in containing, combating or alleviating the continued threat from the Code W project. This was always a controversial choice, particularly following the Great Demarcation of Prague, when the Nobel Committee voted to suspend the award altogether, or to just give it to Henry Kissinger. Later, it was discovered that the majority of the Committee members had in fact been killed and replaced with W-clones, setting off a worldwide panic. In recent years, then, not only have the committee members been subject to genetic tests, but genetic material has been harvested from each nominated candidate. Every batch of nominees is discovered to have several W-Clones disguised in their ranks; the announcement of the recipient is always preceded by a spate of high-profile disappearances and sudden deaths.

This year, however, the committee had only one nominee, which might seem suspicious on the face of it. However, deep research and surreptitious gene coding proved the committee right. The scourge of waysmeer is still potent, but it begins to look like we may have cracked it. And it’s at that moment, on the cusp, if you will, of another era, perhaps a permanently post-W era, that the committee has joined to award the Nobel Prize for Not Being W to Barack Obama.

And can you blame them?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


I cannot recall an occasion when you have so well combined your gift for clear and understated description of narrative with your near-omniscience regarding recent European history. Bravo, indeed.

Excellent recap.

I was especially pleased to see your discussion of the clone-army/island phase of the man's career, which is so often overlooked, despite the existence of a documentary film on the subject (titled, I believe, Dr. Nobel).

It's also always a pleasure to see scholars like yourself provide a hat tip to good old Harris Tweed.

But my favorite bit was this:

He wrote a posthumous will leaving the bulk of his vast wealth to a funding in perpetuity a series of Prizes, to be given to scientists, researchers, technicians and villains who had achieved or seemed to be on the track of achieving what he himself could not: an international award.

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