Dynamic response

July 12, 2002

Alfred Nobel made his name - and his money - as the man who invented dynamite. Key to the invention was the method he developed for stabilising nitroglycerine, a highly explosive and unpredictable substance, by mixing it with an inert sand called diatomaceous earth.

At last week's meeting of chemistry Nobel prizewinners in Lindau, Germany, a panel of five laureates was challenged to explain how this stabilising process works. The initial response was total silence. One panellist tried to change the subject. Eventually, the chairman pressed George Olah, the 1994 winner. Professor Olah thought long and hard before explaining: "Because it works this way."

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