The Nobel Prizes started explosively, born of an alleged guilt trip with the invention of dynamite.

Alfred Nobel (b 21 October 1833, Stockholm, Sweden) was a chemist, engineer and inventor - one might say a pioneering materials scientist, in fact. He manufactured armaments and invented ballistite, a precursor to many smokeless military explosives, particularly the British cordite.
Dynamite is the most famous of his inventions allowing the delicate liquid nitroglycerin to be soaked into an earthly solid for subsequent explosive incineration in the name of war, mining and safe-cracking.

Legend has it that in 1888, a French newspaper, on learning of the death of Alfred's brother Ludvig, published the obituary for the inventor rather prematurely. Alfred's obituary was entitled "The merchant of death is dead" and it so unsettled Alfred that he would be remembered not for his good character nor deeds but for the death and destruction his inventions had wrought that he redrafted his last will and testament to specify that the bulk of his fortune should go towards establishing a series of prizes to reward those who confer the "greatest benefit on mankind" in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace. The Prizes were to be awarded only to the living rather than posthumously in the hope that the cash component would be used by the recipients to further those benefits still more.

Alfred Nobel died of a brain haemorrhage on 10 December 1896 at his villa in San Remo, Italy, although such was the astonishment regarding the nature of his bequest that it was not until April of the following year that the will was approved and the Nobel Foundation could be established to select the recipients for Nobel's Prizes.

Each year there are endless predictions as October approaches, countless scientists who publicly proclaim no interest in such grandiose offerings as prizes and plaudits secretly abandon rationalism to cross their fingers, finger their lucky hare's feet, avoid black cats and walking under ladders, to give themselves the greatest chance of becoming the next name to explode into view.

For those in the physical sciences and in particular the chemists and materials scientists, their biological and crystallographic colleagues often get all the luck despite those topics also effectively being covered by the medicine and physiology prize. This often leaves straight chemistry and materials to languish in the laboratory. Graphene earned physicists the 2010 physics prize, 1996 Chemistry for fullerenes, of course, ceramic superconductors were the 1987 physics, and polymers in 1963 for Chemistry. But, those aside, it seems that materials scientists presumably abandoned the hare's foot amulet long ago. Of course, those plaudits might come one day.

The 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry will be announced on Wednesday 10 October, 11:45 a.m. CET.

David Bradley blogs at and tweets @sciencebase, he is author of the popular science book "Deceived Wisdom".