Aung San Suu Kyi

Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Myanmar democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi poses in Yangon, Myanmar. Before her release from house arrest on Nov. 13, 2010, the laureate had been detained for 15 of the past 21 years.

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More than a century after Alfred Nobel established the peace prize in his will to honor whomever accomplished "the most or the best work for fraternity among nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the promotion of peace congresses," conflict still rages around the world. The prize's greatest irony is that its recipients, like Nobel himself, sometimes contribute to that strife.

Nobel grew up working with his father to supply the Russian army with mechanical equipment, torpedoes, and land and sea mines during the Crimean War. As part of their research, Alfred solved the problem of nitroglycerin's instability by mixing it with diatomaceous earth (a soft sedimentary rock full of fossilized hard-shelled algae called diatoms). He dubbed his innovation dynamite [source: Lemmel]. He also used nitroglycerin to create a smokeless gunpowder called ballistite. From the Franco-Prussian War onward, armies put both inventions to deadly use [source: Tagil].

Although Nobel intended dynamite for constructive purposes such as blasting tunnels and bridge footings, the inventor didn't hold back when it came to perfecting weapons. Indeed, the closing decade of his life was devoted to advancing weapons technologies, including rockets, cannons and progressive powder (a slow-burning explosive) [source: Tagil].

At the same time, the industrialist and philanthropist contributed financially to the cause of peace. This seems a bit ironic until you consider two factors. First, Nobel arguably lived in an age when scientists didn't consider themselves responsible for how others used their inventions [source: Ringertz]. Second, he believed that a sufficiently terrible weapon might bring about peace among nations. As he told Bertha von Suttner, his longtime correspondent and author of the famous anti-war novel "Lay down Your Arms": "Perhaps my factories will put an end to war sooner than your congresses: On the day that two army corps can mutually annihilate each other in a second, all civilized nations will surely recoil with horror and disband their troops" [source: Tagil].

Whether his philosophy was earnest or merely a justification, it represented but one aspect of a talented and multifaceted person, someone who loved literature, wrote poems and plays, and believed in the transformative power of science. If there's a moral to Nobel's story, it's that people are complex creatures with many facets, not all of them pretty or universally popular.

As we'll see in the next section, the same could be said of several Nobel Peace Prize laureates.