September 21, 2008

The Nobel Foundation Versus Michael Nobel

By Bella Jaisinghani

MUMBAI: An award ceremony scheduled to take place in the city on Friday has revived an old controversy between the Nobel Foundation, which awards the most prestigious prize in the world, and one of the descendants of its founder, Sir Alfred Nobel.

Michael Nobel, the great-grand nephew of Sir Alfred, is in Mumbai as guest of honour at the silver jubilee award function of the Priyadarshni Academy. The awards will be distributed in the presence of CM Vilasrao Deshmukh.

On Thursday, Nobel recounted the rich heritage of the Nobel Prize. Sir Alfred, he said, had a big library and was fond of literature. "He was a physicist and chemist and a peace-loving person, therefore these prizes, and the one for medicine probably came from the fact that he was a hypochondriac," he added.

For all his family pride though, there is a hitch. Michael Nobel is the executive chairman of the Nobel Charitable Trust-which has nothing to do with the Nobel Foundation . He is not the "patriarch of the Nobel Prize' ' as his PR machinery describes him.

Michael's father Sven Oleinikoff took his mother's maiden name of Nobel. Michael has had a number of run-ins with the Foundation when he tried to institute a parallel award using the famous name. The Foundation even threatened legal action.

In an exclusive email interview to TOI, executive director of the Nobel Foundation Michael Sohlman wrote from Stockholm: "Michael Nobel has no relation whatsoever with the Nobel Foundation, even if on a number of instances , 'misunderstandings' to that effect somehow have arisen. He is in no way entitled to represent or give any official information about the Foundation. He has taken several initiatives which could be seen as infringements on the goodwill built over 100 years by the Nobel Prizeawarding institutions ."

Michael Nobel clarified that he was not connected with the Foundation. "I must admit that several advantages come with my new last name. However , I do not require the permission of the Foundation to use it, after all, my paternal grandmother was born a Nobel . There is no controversy. It is a civil matter that can easily be solved in the courts or by arbitration," he said.

All he wanted to do, he said, was to institute an award for people working in alternative energy. "We do not even have to call it the Nobel Prize, we could name it the Michael Nobel Award or Medal. I don't see how a new award of the same name could threaten the stature of the Nobel Prize, which is the best known prize in the world," he said.

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