Nobel Week in links

Nobel Week: General
For non-Scandinavians wondering how big an event NobelPrize Day is, this Swedish TV site gives you a good idea.

After each year’s Peace Prize is announced, the lovely people at the Nobel Peace Center have only a few weeks to create an exhibition in time for the Laureates to open it. This year’s exhibition is called SHEROES.

If you haven’t seen the inspiring and humbling Nobel Peace Prize speeches, I urge you to read them.

… and see the CNN interview afterwards, where the question of tokenism is dispatched pretty sharpish.

Nobel Prize Ceremony opening speeches have a different theme each year. This Year’s theme was fostering creativity & innovation through education.

If you care about your daughters, don’t let them watch the Nobel Prize ceremony.

But if you want royal fashions during the Nobel Prize ceremony, I’ll give you royal fashions. All eyes were on Crown Princess Victoria, who is 6 months pregnant. here’s some other people you won’t recognize too.

And here’s the slacker’s guide to winning a Nobel Prize

Nobel Week: Laureates
Nice New York Times profile of this year’s Economics Laureates – Intellectual sparring partners for 40 yrs & now reluctant celebrities.

The perennial question of how Nobel Prize winners spend their money has been answered this year by Brian Schmidt – he’s donated $100,000 to an Australian primary school science programme.

Excellent profile of Dan Shechtman, the Chemistry Laureate who was told he was a disgrace after showing colleagues his groundbreaking quasicrystal result.

Charming profile of Tomas Tranströmer, which provides a taste of how popular his award of the Nobel Prize is in his home country.

Did you know this year’s Literature Laureate is a keen entomologist & even has a beetle named after him?

This year’s Nobel Prize Banquet menu… which for some inexplicable reason is always kept a secret until the guests are seated.

Don’t often see this. The Wall Street Journal ran an ad from NYU Stern congratulate Thomas Sargent on his Nobel Prize.

And in other news… 

Physicists offer their thoughts on whether they think the Higgs boson real, including a limerick from one Nobel Laureate.

If the Higgs boson is found, then which of at least 6 possible contenders would get a Nobel Prize for it?

Excellent piece of scientific history: Scientific American defends Marie Curie—and women scientists—in 1911. 

Sotherby’s are auctioning manuscripts by only Arab writer to win Literature Nobel Prize. Cost? A cool £50-70K.

“It’s become more than a movie, it’s become a lesson in life as well.” The new Aung San Suu Kyi film premiered this week.

Five Peace Prize winners have called for the release of jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, arguing that the world has already begun to stop thinking about his case.

Meanwhile, China’s Nobel-naysaying alternative honours Vladimir Putin with Confucius Peace Prize.

How to survive Nobel Week

Unless you have been to Stockholm, or are Scandinavian, it’s difficult to realise just how grand an affair Nobel Week is for the new Laureates. They get a rare taste of the celebrity lifestyle, with a schedule of interviews, press conferences, champagne receptions and other events to match.

So, for any budding Nobel Laureates out there, I’ve popped up on the UK’s Guardian to provide some tips on how to best survive Nobel Week.

You’ll find me speaking on their Science Weekly podcast (around 17 mins in), plus I’ve written a post on the same subject on their Science Blogs site.

Hope you enjoy them, and many thanks to Alok Jha and Jason Phipps at the Guardian for allowing me to talk about all things Nobel.

How not to give a Nobel Lecture

While the Nobel Laureates are visiting Stockholm and Oslo this week, their only obligation (other than actually receive the prize) is to deliver a public lecture. As always, you can watch the lectures live on

The statutes declare that Laureates give their lecture before, or no later than six months after the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony. In truth, the rules are often relaxed under extenuating circumstances. If Laureates are too ill to travel then recorded video lectures can be screened to an audience in the run-up to the ceremonies, as was the case with Economics Laureate Leonid Hurwicz in 2007 and Literature Laureate Harold Pinter in 2005. This year, there won’t be a Literature Nobel Lecture owing to Tomas Tranströmer’s health, instead there will be a programme featuring his texts. Due to Ralph Steinman’s untimely passing away, his colleague from Rockefeller University Professor Michel Nussenweig will deliver a lecture for the Medicine Prize outlining Steinman’s achievements.

Laureates don’t tend to forfeit the prize if they fail to give a lecture, either. When Wilhelm Roentgen, discoverer of X-rays, received the first Nobel Prize for Physics in 1901, he said he would return to Stockholm to give a lecture, but he never did. More recently, Liu Xiaobo was incarcerated by Chinese authorities when he was awarded the Peace Prize last year, and in his place the Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann recited the final statement Liu wrote before his arrest.

The brief for Nobel Lectures is usually simple: talk about a subject connected with the prize-awarded work, and stick to the 45-minute time slot. If there’s more than one Laureate, they usually work out in advance who will say what with regards to the prize-awarded work, so that they avoid any repetition.

What you shouldn’t do is use your brief time on stage to discredit a rival, especially if that person happens to be there to receive the Nobel Prize with you. And yet, that’s exactly what the Italian anatomist Camillo Golgi did in 1906, when he launched into a malicious attack on his Medicine co-Laureate, the Spanish anatomist Santiago Ramón y Cajal.

Both scientists had developed staining methods that revealed the complex anatomy of the nervous system in exquisite detail. Working by candlelight in a hospital kitchen that he had converted into a laboratory, Golgi discovered a technique in the 1870s for impregnating brain and other tissue with a silver solution in such a way that made it possible to stain nerve cells black and view under the microscope.

Drawing by Camillo Golgi of the brain's hippocampus region made visible thanks to his silver-staining method

Cajal refined Golgi’s silver staining method, and blessed with an artist’s hand, he created thousands of beautiful drawings that depicted the nervous tissue as resembling in his words “a forest of outstretched trees”.

But, though both researchers used similar methods, Cajal spotted something different through the microscope. Golgi viewed the nervous system as being a seamless, continuous network of interconnected cells, with nerve signals firing along in all directions. Cajal, on the other hand, proposed that the brain is composed of billions of individual cells, or neurons (a term coined by the German anatomist Heinrich Wilhelm Gottfried von Waldeyer-Hart), receiving information at one end and transmitting it in one direction along to the next cell.

One of Santiago Ramón y Cajal's many intricate drawings of brain cells.

To promote his theory, Cajal went on a two-month tour of European scientific centres in 1889 and presented his slides and drawings to the great and the good. Most of his peers were eventually persuaded by his arguments, except for Golgi, who made sure he was out of town when Cajal visited Pavia to see him.

An indignant Golgi refused to give up on his theory. He spent years seeking evidence that both supported his views and refuted Cajal’s, and he used the opportunity of his Nobel Lecture in 1906 to outline what he thought was wrong with the Spanish anatomist’s views. With the provocative title of “The neuron doctrine – theory and facts”, Golgi began his Nobel Lecture by saying:

It may seem strange that, since I have always been opposed to the neuron theory – although acknowledging that its starting-point is to be found in my own work – I have chosen this question of the neuron as the subject of my lecture, and that it comes at a time when this doctrine is generally recognized to be going out of favour.

Golgi then proceeded to outline experiments conducted by researchers at his institute that had exposed flaws in the theory, before concluding grandly:

My wish is that these new anatomical studies, on which this Institute, in such a high order of thought, has wished to draw the attention of the world, may represent a new element of progress for humanity.

Cajal handled the uncomfortable situation with grace, beginning his lecture as follows:

In accordance with the tradition followed by the illustrious orators honoured before me with the Nobel Prize, I am going to talk to you about the principal results of my scientific work in the realm of the histology and physiology of the nervous system.

Golgi might have thought that he won the battle on that day in Stockholm, but Cajal won the war. [UPDATE: see comment below] The neuron doctrine remains a fundamental principle for understanding the central nervous system.

So this episode provides two salutary lessons for budding Nobel Laureates. First, even a scientist as brilliant as Golgi, without whom Cajal could not have made his prize-awarded observations, can be undone if they lose objective sight over rival claims. Second, if you are going to wrongly attack your rival’s theories, try not to do so on one of the highest-profile of stages − especially as your words will be recorded for generations of scientists to discover.

Nobel Week begins

Today this year’s Laureates in Physics, Medicine and Economics begin to arrive in Stockholm to experience a celebration of their achievements like no other.

Unless you have been to Sweden or Norway, it’s difficult to appreciate just how much the Nobel Prize festivities are ingrained into their popular culture. Newspapers and TV programmes will cover the Laureates’ movements all week, and the Nobel Prize Ceremony and Banquet will be broadcast live on TV. For science Laureates more accustomed to university halls than red carpets, the next few days will provide a rare glimpse of the celebrity lifestyle.

As you can see from the official schedule, there’s a lot of events packed into Nobel Week, and so over on the Guardian Science Podcast I’ve provided a brief survival guide for Laureates. For those Laureates arriving in Stockholm today, enjoy the surroundings of the Grand Hotel, and get some rest. You’re about to experience a long and memorable week.