“Hope is nature’s veil…” Reflections on Nobel Prize Day

Image of The Nobel Prize 1901-2001 commemorate stamp.

Want to Hear an Interesting Story? 

I have an older brother (well technically I have two living) who is 18 years and one day older than I am. That said, while we acknowledged ourselves as siblings, we grew up having experiences like that of only children. It was this disconnect in our lives as siblings that made me interested in the bonds and relationships we have with family and how that shapes who we are.

One of the things that used to fascinate me as a child was how we got our names. (My brother closest to my age, and central to this story, also has a T first name but let's focus on middle names). As a child I found it amusing to hear the debate on what my first name would be (a story for another time) and that my middle name was carefully selected by my great-grandmother. Additionally, I'd learn that it was an honor I was one of the few of the many of us that called her granny that she named; which spoke to the close nature of my mother’s relationship and eventually mine to my great-grandmother. Of course, being the inquisitive child I was, I began to drill everyone on how they got their names and why.

My mother I found out dodged the bullet that is James Etta because my grandmother hated it. I learned my favorite aunt had a spelling mistake on her birth certificate for her middle name. I learned my uncle was named by mother who liked the middle name Allen and so on. Names on my mother's side always seemed to have a story and I was fascinated to hear them. Even my own child is named after my father, mother, and paternal grandfather, respectively. However, there was one name that always confused me, and it was my brother's middle name. 

My brother was born during an interesting time in American history - the period of the Vietnam war. Like many other communities during those years, the draft had hit segregated Black Louisville hard, and it was a topic of much discussion both in the news and on the streets. Like now, people were taking to the streets to protest not only the war but a long list of social justice issues.

My mother at the time was a young woman in her late teens, not long out of high school, and found herself becoming a mother for the first time. I never asked, but I can imagine what it must have been like to be a young new mother and wife during such political unrest and social upheaval. I often imagine it's similar to the feelings I felt being pregnant, not yet knowing the gender of my child in 2013 watching those who look like me begin to band together to protest the verdict of Trayvon Martin's case. I recall how fearful I felt, that I may have a son who may look just like that young man, and what kind of world I was bringing this child into.

Though I do not know all the details about my mother’s life in the 60s, I do know that this time period profoundly affected my mother.  She was affected so much that she decided to give my brother the middle name Nobel, after Alfred Nobel the scientist and inventor that upon his death established the Nobel prize. Nobel in his will outlined that the majority his fortune was to be used to give prizes to individuals that contributed to the betterment of humanity in the field of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace.

Nobel of course understood and can be quoted saying that "Good wishes alone will not ensure peace." Just like our best laid plans sometimes do not follow the path we mean, my mother's naming plan did not work out how she intended. My mother had unfortunately inherited the family language delay, so her Bs sounded like Vs. When the nurse recorded my brother's name, she replaced the B with a V and thus my brother who was supposed to be named Nobel was given Novell. I will admit now like all siblings do, I died of laughter when I realized that not only did my brother's middle name sound like Noel but it was a legitimate spelling mistake. However that said, as I got older I would grow to understand how deeply war and unrest must have changed my mother to name her son after a prize given for peace - which is now a family name as my brother passed it on to my niece. Just like the controversy my brother's misspelling caused, the Nobel prize has often been controversial regarding who it was awarded to and who was nominated. Nevertheless, I think it speaks to the complexity of human nature and more importantly that we must think not just of our actions as just belonging to ourselves but to the wider community and world.

I tell this story because for many of us the Nobel prize is not an award that always sits in the front of our minds. Many of us only think about the peace prize but the Nobel committee also awards prizes in areas that, right now, speak to more than just the protests in the street over social justice so similar in nature to what my mother must have seen as a young woman in the 60s. We should be supporting our academics, scientists, doctors, and deep thinkers now more than ever as we sit on this ledge of opportunity to make large improvements to the ways we all live. The research and work that is happening in labs, think tanks, and universities will be the foundation to solving the crisis with Covid-19 and pandemics like it in the future, but furthermore could solve the social problems we are facing now with social unrest due to systematic/institutional racism, economics, climate change, and education. That is the legacy of the Nobel prize to recognize those offering us hope for a better future regardless of their nationality but solely based on their worthiness, or to loosely quote one of the most famous recipients of the prize their "intelligence plus character".

So be a champion of science, encourage those around you to not remain silent in the face of injustice, advocate for truth, and believe in hope. The same hope for a better future that inspired a teenage girl to try to name her son Nobel, and that I hope we all have in our hearts as we close out 2020 and enter 2021.

Focus on Hope

Nobel: A Century of Prize Winners, book cover
Scientific American Presents Nobel Prize Winners on Physics and Astronomy, book cover
Nobel Prizes and Life Sciences, book cover
Boneheads & Brainiacs: Heroes and Scoundrels of the Nobel Prize in Medicine, book cover
Alfred Nobel: The Man Behind the Peace Prize, book cover
Peace, They Say A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the W, book cover