Alfred Nobel intended his prizes to honor those who had "conferred the greatest benefit on mankind." But on top of choosing militarist peace laureates, and overlooking giants like Tolstoy, Joyce, and Ibsen in literature, the awards have another weakness. They are missing a science that has shaped our economy and society so profoundly that we are not even aware of its contribution. It's the reason we have unprecedented mobility, nutrition and comfort; can have some warning of volcanoes and tsunamis; can contemplate "deep time" on a planet 4 billion years old; and have some inkling of our own origins.
Alongside economics, chemistry, physics, and medicine, there should be a Nobel prize in geology. With any luck, a Russian metal magnate or Texan oil tycoon will step up to endow it.
Every fourth year, the Nobel committee does award the Crafoord Prize for geosciences (taking turns with mathematics, astronomy, and biology). Though worth $500,000, it doesn't draw anything like the attention the Nobels do. The Vetlesen Prize was created by a Norwegian shipping baron as a kind of geology Nobel, but though it comes with prestige and a big check, it is not awarded annually.
The absence of a geology Nobel is surely an oversight, given how Alfred Nobel's older brother Robert made his fortune. Working grudgingly for his younger brother Ludvig, he was sent in 1873 to the Caucasus to find walnut wood for the Russian government. Instead, arriving in Baku, he caught oil fever and spent the twenty-five thousand roubles of "walnut money" on a small refinery.
With gushers such as "The Devil's Bazaar" and "The Wet Nurse," Robert and Ludvig developed the oil tanker, became the oil kings of Baku, and broke Standard Oil's monopoly on international trade. Russia briefly became the world's largest producer, a position it would regain in the 1970s, then in the twenty-first century. A young Stalin cut his revolutionary teeth organizing strikes among the workers.
Exhausted by his labors, Ludvig suffered a heart attack at 57; confusion with his better-known brother gave rise to the famous "Merchant of Death" obituary that inspired Alfred to endow his prizes.
Had history worked out a little differently, who might have won the geology prize? Given more than a century's injustice towards geologists, we will have to relax the restriction on posthumous awards. But the great 19th-century pioneers do not qualify -- only work since the first Nobels in 1901 is eligible. So, with apologies to many other great geologists, here is my shortlist.
This year is the centenary of Alfred Wegener's Continental Drift hypothesis. Wegener, a German meteorologist, noticed that the coasts of Africa and South America fit together, as do Antarctica, Australia, India, and Madagascar. What is more, distinct ancient plants, the fern Glossopteris, and traces of glaciations are found across the southern continents. He proposed that the continents had once been combined into Pangaea -- Latin for "All Earth"-- and that the Atlantic and other oceans had then opened between them.