Every year in early October, a few of the world’s most distinguished scientists get a phone call that changes their lives. Some are in bed when the call comes, and it’s through the haze of sleep that they hear the news. Others are mid-flight: In 1991 chemist Richard Ernst was on a Moscow-bound plane when the pilot came back to make the announcement. Some are sure it’s a joke; others ask for proof; still others are speechless.
For each of these scientists, it’s Gunnar Öquist, permanent secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, who makes the call to inform them that they have won the Nobel Prize. The Academy of Sciences administers the prizes in chemistry, physics, and economics, and this week, academy members are making the final votes and announcing the 2009 winners of the most coveted award in science. Seed’s Veronique Greenwood spoke with Professor Öquist on the phone Tuesday, immediately after the announcement of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics.
Seed: Why is it that the permanent secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences is the one who makes the phone calls?
Gunnar Öquist: It’s a long tradition. It’s always been the case that the permanent secretary is the one who does this and oversees the Nobel awards. So it’s natural. I would say that the permanent secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences is equivalent to the president of most academies around the world.
Seed: When you call a Nobel Prize winner, is there a specific script you usually stick to?
GÖ: You always have to adjust yourself to the situation, but I normally introduce myself and apologize if I’ve called very early in the morning or the middle of the night [laughs]. You know, it’s a phone call from Stockholm in early October. I think those I call get it quite quickly that it’s something important. And then I just say what I say at the press conference: I say that the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award you the Nobel Prize in Physics, and I tell them if they share the prize with someone else, and then I read the citation. I relay congratulations from myself and from the academy. And then we have a chat.
Seed: What has been the most dramatic response to your announcement? What has been the most memorable call you’ve made?
GÖ: Well, I wouldn’t call anything that’s happened dramatic. The people I’ve called are generally very happy to receive the distinction of Nobel laureate, of course! And they are looking forward to the trip to Stockholm in December. It’s just such a joyful conversation.
I’d rather not talk about specific phone calls because it’s very much a private moment between me and the laureates. But I have been calling since 2003 now, so it’s about 40 to 50 Laureates I’ve talked to so far, and it’s all very memorable—we have good conversations. It’s very nice to meet the laureates when they come to Stockholm. I always meet them at the airport and we can sort of connect back to the phone call, which is a good feeling.
Seed: Do you ever have trouble reaching the winners by phone? At least one winner was reached by radio on an airplane.
GÖ: Yes, it happens regularly that we miss one or two of the laureates in a given year. But what we typically do then is leave a message on their voicemail asking them to turn on the phone—we’ll call later. Today I had difficulty reaching Dr. [George E.] Smith [winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics] right away. But I got hold of him later, after the press conference. It’s a privilege to be able to convey happy messages like this.
Seed: Why is it that the winners are always called at a specific time, which is around mid-day in Sweden but is 4 or 5 in the morning for many of them? Is it a tradition to wake eminent scientists up with fantastic news?
GÖ: We make the decision in the morning, and then right after the decision we notify the laureates. Then we have a press conference. So today, when we announced the physics prize, we had a press conference at quarter to 12, Swedish time. And if you live in the States and have received a Nobel Prize, it means I will wake you up late at night or early in the morning [laughs].
Seed: Where do we stand with regard to selecting next year’s Nobels? How is the selection process going?
GÖ: It’s a long process. We receive nominations early in the year, then the work picks up in the first part of the year. The summer months are when we really investigate and review the candidates, and then by August we start to narrow in on the subject and on those who have made the most significant contributions. So it’s year-round work. The committees are already gearing up for next year’s prize.
Originally published October 8, 2009