They are among the most coveted prizes in the world. But how do the winners hear the good news? Tom Whipple finds out
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, September/October 2013
STAFFAN NORMARK HAS a strategy for getting his phone calls past secretaries. "We tell them this is a very important call. A. Very. Important. Call." He enunciates each word carefully before moving on to the clincher. "From Stockholm." So far, he has always been put through.
For three mornings a year, Professor Normark, permanent secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, is the finest cold-caller in the world. Come the second week of October, if Normark is on the line, it will quite probably be the most significant conversation of your life. If it’s a Tuesday, he will be informing you that you have won the Nobel prize in chemistry. If it’s a Wednesday, physics. Economics comes the Monday after. He doesn’t present physiology or medicine. And peace and literature, with their uncertainties and politics, are left to other committees. Or, better still, to the Norwegians.
And if on those mornings you don’t pick up the phone, then the ceremony continues regardless. Other prizes may warn you weeks in advance, but not the Nobels. At 9.30am Swedish time on those days the entire Academy, comprising almost 500 fellows, votes on what the specialist subject committees advise. Then comes the phone call at around 11.15am. Whatever your response, the public announcement comes at noon. If, like Saul Perlmutter (physics, 2011), you live in California and that window opens in the middle of the night, then it could well be the dawn chorus of television news vans outside that alerts you.
Normally, from the list of numbers handed to Normark by his secretary, one will work. Even if, as happened to Robert Lefkowitz (chemistry, 2012), it is 3am your time, you have your earplugs in and it is your wife who answers.
When Normark does get through, what he and his colleagues refer to as "the magic call" gets interesting. "Then," he says, "a lot of things can happen."
For the pragmatic Swedes to use the word "magic" is a measure of the hold the Nobels still have more than a century after their foundation. These days, there are thousands of prizes in dozens of disciplines, some with even bigger purses than its £800,000 per prize. Yet few of us could name them. Somehow the Nobels, set up in 1901 by a Swedish dynamite magnate, retain a special hold on us.
Normark likes to think the reason this is seen as the most distinguished of all prizes is simply because it only goes to the most distinguished people. "It’s hard to understand, from outside, the work that goes into finding the most worthy laureate." For the scientific prizes, the process begins with a call for nominations, sent to 3,000 scientists and affiliates of the academy. From this, a committee of five will come up with around 300 names. Then the investigations begin. "You start to know these individuals just from paper," Normark says. "You’ve assessed their achievements, compared them with others, looked through exhaustively." In the autumn, the few final candidates are presented to the full academy. That same morning, it is time to pick up the phone.
There are three ways people receive the call. The most satisfying, for Normark, is when it is a total surprise. "Sometimes the person is completely silent. So totally that I don’t even know if they are still there. You can just hear him breathing." He notices his own use of the male pronoun. “It is still”, he says with a twinge of apology, "mainly men."
Sometimes the subjects of his research have an inkling that it could be their time; but when their phone rings, they try not to let themselves believe it. Serge Haroche (physics, 2012) was out walking with his wife when he saw a Swedish code appear on his mobile. "I realised it was real and it’s, you know, really overwhelming," he says. "I was lucky—I was in the street and passing near a bench, so I was able to sit down immediately."
It is not just the depth of research that marks the Nobels out. In their 112 years, the prizes have gained a transcendent cultural status. For most people, it is impossible to validate the eminence of the winners. The prize remains universal shorthand for the greatest intellectual success you can achieve.
And after winning, a laureate leads an anointed life. Within their university, they become untouchable, a totem of the university’s own prestige, with a value often far beyond any further research they do. Just ask Brian Josephson (physics, 1973). After winning the Nobel, for a quantum mechanical discovery made when he was 22, he has devoted his life to what might charitably be described as the fringes of science—investigating telepathy and the paranormal. His position in the Cavendish laboratory at Cambridge has remained assured throughout.
Outside the university, meanwhile, the winners suddenly have significance. They may have toiled for decades in an unloved branch of organic chemistry—no matter, from now on their every public utterance has gravitas. In those joint letters to the editor so beloved of academia, where the ranks of the ivory tower come together in common cause, their name is suddenly at the top.
Why else the fuss when in 2007 James Watson (physiology or medicine, 1962), discoverer of the structure of DNA, spoke about IQ supposedly being lower among Africans? It wasn’t his field, and at 79 he wasn’t exactly in the prime of his researching life.
When I interview him, he says he cannot remember much of the call. But he does find time to criticise Rosalind Franklin’s mathematical abilities and to
lament the death of Francis Crick, his fellow laureate—because it has left him the most intelligent person he knows. It is arrogant, but somehow charming. Without the Nobel, it would be just plain arrogant. Without the Nobel, I suspect he wouldn’t have said it.
The third way people answer that phone is in expectation. Some Nobels really are obvious: Peter Higgs, of boson fame, will probably not stray too far from a landline on Tuesday October 8th. Whether it comes as a surprise or not to the recipient, for Normark this is still the best part of his job. It can also be somewhat stressful.
"We sit, we talk. It’s nervous in the room—because we would like to find the individuals." Then he is handed the phone numbers, the product of weeks of research into all the candidates—done without their knowledge. "There is a group working on this. They have to be very discreet, but how they get the numbers I don’t know." A little like a benevolent Scandinavian terrorist group, they have a cell structure. Often, Normark will need a choice of numbers.
Paul Nurse (physiology or medicine, 2001) took some tracking down. "For the three previous years, I’d had some very irritating calls from journalists asking me, 'do you think you’ll win this year?'" says Nurse, a geneticist and cell biologist, now president of the Royal Society in London. "What the hell can you say? Worse, it gets you thinking, 'Oh I might.'" It is because of this intense media interest that the announcement still takes place on the day of the vote.
"I didn’t get a call by mid-morning. So I thought, 'Oh well', and I went off, curiously, to a meeting with Jim Watson." That meeting was to begin with one Nobel laureate present and end with two.
Halfway through, a message came from Nurse’s office. Could he please switch his phone on? There was a voicemail. "It was a heavy Swedish accent. I was a bit confused, and listened again. I’m not good with technology, so it took ages." The second time, he thought it might be saying he had won the prize. "I went back into the room I’d just left. I said, 'Do excuse me, I have to go now. I think I’ve won the Nobel prize.'" As excuses for leaving a meeting go, it’s quite a flash one.
Things don’t always run so smoothly. There was the occasion when the committee got the wrong number, conferring the most important scientific prize in the world on a confused neighbour of the right person. More often, Normark has a job convincing the recipient that he is telling the truth.
"I politely suggested it didn’t sound very likely and I’d need some proof," recalls James Mirrlees (economics, 1996). John Gurdon (physiology or medicine, 2012) was in his laboratory when he was told he had won the Nobel for cloning a frog. Given that this was work he had done 50 years earlier, he assumed that "someone was pulling my leg".
This is a surprisingly common response, Normark says. For this he has an ace up his sleeve: "Of course, I have a very Swedish accent, which helps."
Tom Whipple is science correspondent of the Times
Illustration Noma Bar