Stockholm native and cognitive scientist Anders Sandberg spies some Nobelists in his town.



Today I attended a seminar titled “Can anybody become a Nobel Prize winner?” organized by the Stockholm Academic Forum (an organisation for the Stockholm universities) and the Nobel Foundation.

On my way to the seminar the bus passed by the cemetery where Alfred Nobel lies, and I glimpsed his tombstone in the pale yellow December sunlight. It is a clean obelisk with the upper half slightly raised from the lower half. I remember first seeing it as a kid: In the dark space between the halves there was something. My young imagination immediately conjured up the picture of two clasped skeletal hands hanging out from this stone prison. Of course, it was a thick stone laurel wreath. Today of course the monument was supplied with fresh flowers.

If there is one thing we Swedes are bad at, it is disagreeing. The panel of eminent academics at the seminar generally agreed on everything.

That there are too few female laureates in the sciences (2.4%, counting Marie Curie twice) was unsurprisingly seen as problematic. Anders Bárány, chief of the Nobel Museum, saw it “as a stain not just on society and academia, but also on the Nobel medal.” But changing it is complex: There are factors both in society and culture that need to be overcome: in academic organization, in what sciences (and kinds of scientific work) are
seen as important and of course, how the Nobel committees work.

Another issue they also all agreed upon was that it would be OK to give prizes to institutions and research groups, like the Peace Prize sometimes is. There is nothing in particular preventing this in the testament and Nobel Foundation rules (there is a maximum of three parties sharing a prize, but these parties could be institutions). Only the Karolinska Institute assembly (responsible for the medicine prize) has a rule
forbidding it. The panel generally agreed that these days most breakthroughs are not due to individuals but groups. In this world of industrialized science the lone genius is rare. On the other hand, the borders of research groups are often blurred and it might be hard to tell who to include.

But there may be a conflict here between the function of rewarding useful science and our need for heroes. There is no question that a prize being rewarded mainly to organisations rather than individuals, even when represented by some leader, would have less of an impact than the very personal prizes that are awarded today. As Margareta Norell Bergendahl of the Royal Institute of Technology pointed out, we Swedes might not even realize the status the prizes hold abroad. We need to protect the brand (something the Nobel Foundation is acutely aware of). The laureates are both models to people going into science and public scientists, something all too rare these days.

A surprisingly large number of citizens watch the ceremony and subsequent ball on television. While some just want to see celebrity and royalty, solemn events (surprisingly rare viewing these days) or even the mouth-watering cooking, I think many watch because they feel there is real honour in the air.




Future Nobelists of Sweden

What do ordinary Stockholmers think about the Nobel prizes? I asked some youngsters, between their computer games, what they thought. Most, of course, did not have any particular view. Some thought this year’s prizes were good, or at least not bad. But they were unanimous in saying that the prizes are important. “It’s big; it inspires people to do research,” one remarked.  “Scientists ought to get some prizes in life, too!” another chimed in, wondering why there are so many different sports prizes but so few prizes in science. A third pointed out that it is important who gets it, because that tells the world what kind of research is seen as worth something.

The youngsters sounded almost suspiciously like the laureates when asked about how they perceived the importance of the prize. As the economics laureate Robert J. Aumann cheerfully pointed out (in Economese, of course, while stroking his Father Christmas beard): “Money is a signal—money says, ‘Hey, that’s important!’ Most of the laureates were not starving before the prize, but the prize calls attention to what they have been doing. “Our new role is selling our product,” said Aumann. “Up until now we have been in manufacturing. Now we have an opportunity to sell.”


To the Lecture Halls

Today I visited the Nobel lectures in physics and chemistry. Aula Magna is the big auditorium of Stockholm University, a very Scandinavian building of glass, stone and wood. Inside was an audience mostly of students, journalists and a few science groupies. Latecomers were nervously eyeing the functionaries at the doors as they hurriedly approached—Would they be turned away or not?—only to be greeted with towering applause as they entered just as Roy J. Glauber took the scene.

Glauber started out with a historical overview of a century of light quanta. Although as he remarked that we surely had them before, from the time “the Good Lord said, ‘Let there be quantum electrodynamics’... translation of course from Hebrew”. After introducing the origins of the field he rapidly moved into the quantum fields themselves and concluded with a photo of a very stiffly posing Einstein. I have never experienced such a fluid talk about quantum field theory, and even the younger students afterwards said they got it.

John L. Hall entertained with the parallel stories of researching and living in Boulder, Colorado, and how positive interference in lasers and competition between research groups can produce great things. Theodor W. Hänsch told us about ‘the passion for precision’. I am desperately trying to avoid cracking some joke about punctual Germans, but there is no doubt that there is a joy in exactness. Whenever we can see a few decimal places clearer, we see new things. He did indeed keep the length of the talk on time.

Outside the auditorium, on a whiteboard sign used to direct visitors to the different entrances, someone has tried to explain relativistic refraction to somebody else during a break.

Richard R. Schrock said during yesterday’s press conference that he wanted to invigorate chemistry and show how important it is, something most people don’t realize. Usually the chemistry laureates have the short straw. Anybody can speak with the literature laureates (and nobody admits to not understand them), the peace laureates are public people, and the economics laureates are often suitably controversial; everybody recognizes the importance of medicine, and usually the physicists have some exciting application to show or can talk about awe-inspiring aspects of our world view. But the chemists? Their work is usually so remote from everyday experience—despite the often great practical importance—that they appear more isolated than even the most abstruse theoretical physicist. We think we understand black holes—we see them in movies and computer games after all—but chemical synthesis remains more abstract.

The chemistry lectures were also far more abstract than the physics lectures—two hours of clean white PowerPoint slides filled with structure formulas and some amazing chemical tongue-twisters. The science itself is exciting, but there were few pictures of any results or applications despite the general use of the methods developed by this year’s laureates. The main exception was the start of Yves Chauvin’s talk, where he gave a brief presentation of the French Institute of Oil (IFP), where he had been working most of his career, and the petrochemical problems that led to the development of metathesis, the subject of this year’s prize. He might be humble in terms of giving most of the credit for the metathesis to his colleagues, but at least he links the concrete and abstract worlds.

It is not hard to tell exactly who is interested in the Nobel festivities when walking through the city: the Nobel Prize posters are a reliable sign. The Nobel foundation produces popular science posters explaining the research, one for each field. They are pretty irresistible and given out at the lectures, so tracking the diffusion of attendees afterwards is possible by looking for people with rolled posters sticking up from their backpacks.




Opening Thoughts and the Nobel Press Conferences

Stockholm in December: It is dark, rainy, and the streets gritty with sanding from the blizzard last week. Just the place to turn to the light of curiosity and celebrate science: a Christmas holiday for the mind. Over the span of about two weeks the Nobel prize festivities ensure that scientific luminaries not only visit and lecture to their peers, but also get a chance to interest the public in what they are doing.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences is located in a pyramidal building, somewhat like a mixture between a medieval fort and the roof of the haunted skyscraper in Ghostbusters. But most journalists attending the press conference with the laureates of physics, chemistry and economics were more busy trying to get their electronics to function than look at the architecture. The entire room was filled with people manipulating menus, connecting wires and bathing the laureates in the blackbody radiation of photo flashes.

Meanwhile the laureates showed that by now they are used to this kind of handling. They stoically stood for the photographers, answered the standard questions, and were bustled around by their academy time managers, who are perhaps the untold heroes of these festivities, ensuring that no laureate wanders off or arrives at the ceremony rehersals too late.

Most questions about science are often framed in terms of utility (or the purely personal). Even the sheer delight of doing science is often described as merely a good reason to bring young people into science presumably to do useful stuff. But there is also the fun in frivolous research. When I asked what was the most fun application of his research, Theodor Hänsch answered: “The world’s first edible laser”. In the ‘70s he had just for fun put together a Jell-O laser that produced a beautiful green laser light (see for the full story). In the end, it led to distributed feedback lasers, a very practical result. Fun research always has a great chance to become useful, but that is not why we do it.

Something most laureates agreed on was that the prize was life-changing. Or at least filled up their mailboxes and phones. The medicine laureates discovered the hard way that the Australian phone system apparently bills even for unreceived calls - even at half a cent each, the flood of charges adds up. Researchers awaiting their prize should take note.

Physics laureate Roy Glauber told the audience how he had been deluged with petitions to sign - which he refused. When asked whether there were any cause he would sign immediately he responded, “Freedom of scientific inquiry. Freedom of science from religious incursions.”


A Stroke of Luck

The medical press conference at the Karolinska Institute was made nicely surreal by the sound of an Italian radio channel or translator that somehow crept into the audio system. Organizers spent most of the time moving around in the audience trying to find the culprit, listening suspiciously near any piece of electronics. Meanwhile Barry J. Marshall and J. Robin Warren were synchronizing their watches, answering questions and occasionally interviewing each other.

The story of Helicobacter pylori is a good story and Marshall and Warren are good storytellers. The story has everything one wants from a scientific tale: an unusual discovery, overbearing dogmas challenged and overcome, daring experiments and cases of serendipity. It even has a happy ending with people living healthy, ulcer-free lives (and for some, a Nobel Prize).

In science, the hard thing is to see the obvious. People had for a long time been seeing bacteria in stomach tissue samples, always convincing themselves that they had arrived after the sample was taken. After all, the stomach is sterile—right? The sterility was of course proven by the inability of culturing any bacteria from stomach content. And since nobody had any success in doing these cultures there was little point in looking for the bacteria. Neat and circular, as most established dogmas.

But breaking the dogma took not just the ability to see what others did not see, but a measure of luck. Marshall and Warren had tried to culture Helicobacter pylori using a campylobacter culture protocol, asking the lab at the hospital to give the cultures plenty of time. Instead the lab technicians, knowing how fast the protocol was supposed to work, threw out the cultures after two days when nothing had happened. This continued for six months. It took a combination of an epidemic and Easter holidays to cause them to leave the cultures long enough. The laureates didn’t see it as a lucky break—to them it was six months wasted. “We are still cranky about that,” Marshall remarked.

In the same way the by now famous experiment where Marshall infected himself with Heliobacter (“He made me do it,” Marshall joked at Warren) was a success not just because of its clear results but a bit of publishing luck. The week before their paper was published the British Medical Journal had proposed an unknown bacterium as the cause of ulcers; the week after an editorial in The Lancet referred to it as the answer to BMJ‘s question, giving the result much greater circulation than it would have otherwise had.

The average utility of serendipity is zero. But it does make good stories.



Doing Away With False Nobel Lore

There is an “urban myth” (or perhaps, campus myth) that the reason there is no prize in mathematics is that Gösta Mittag-Leffler, a mathematician contemporary of Alfred Nobel, ran away with Nobel’s wife or mistress. This is not true, Alfred was a bachelor all his life and apparently on good terms with Gösta. But he was a practical man who wanted to promote the best practical benefit for mankind.

There was talk about establishing a prize in the name of the Norwegian mathematician Hans Abel from the start of the Nobel prizes, but little came of it until recently when the Norwegian Academy of Arts and Sciences started awarding the Abel Prize. Whether it will unseat the Fields Medal as the greatest honour of mathematics remains to be seen.

Mittag-Leffler was by the way an interesting person with a strong personality. His main work was in complex analysis. He helped found Stockholm University by arranging popular science lectures for paying visitors. One reason was to ensure that Sonya Kovalevskaya, a brilliant protegé, could get a professorship despite being a woman. He was also an enthusiastic if dangerous cyclist, apparently nearly running over several neighbours with his imported penny-farthing cycle. Apparently some of the old neighbours in the upscale Djursholm neighbourhood where he lived (and now a mathematics institute bearing his name is located) still recall with fear the day he got a car.

Originally published December 8, 2005


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