When a Nobel Prize just isn’t enough

“You know what’s cooler then winning a Nobel Prize,” Sean Parker is unlikely to have said. “Winning a Nobel Prize and an Oscar.” Few people are lucky enough to receive a Nobel Prize, but the list of Laureates who record the highest achievements outside of their field is considerably smaller.

So, for any trivia buffs out there, here’s a list of Laureates and their endeavours that make them members of an even more exclusive club.

Academy Award

The Irish dramatist George Bernard Shaw is the only Nobel Laureate to have received an Academy Award. (I know what many of you are thinking, but bear with me…).

Shaw followed his Literature Prize in 1929 with the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in 1938 for Pygmalion, which starred Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller, and was adapted from Shaw’s 1913 play of the same name.

 

Incidentally, the noted critic and socialist accepted his Nobel Prize in a typically non-straightforward manner. He accepted the prize, but not the money, and said afterwards: “I can forgive Alfred Nobel for having invented dynamite, but only a fiend in human form could have invented the Nobel Prize.”

So what about Al Gore, I hear you cry? Well, the former Vice-President of the United States of America and 2007 Peace Laureate may have accepted the Academy Award for Best Documentary (feature) for “An Inconvenient Truth”; however, he didn’t actually win the coveted prize. The winner of the Academy Award for the film was in fact the producer and director Davis Guggenheim.

Olympic Games

Again, contrary to some opinion, there’s only one Nobel Laureate who has won an Olympic medal. Step up to the podium Philip Noel-Baker, British diplomat, 1959 Peace Prize winner, and who as a middle-distance runner won a silver medal in the 1,500 metres at the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp.

Noel-Baker (later Baron Noel-Baker) received the Peace Prize for his lifelong commitment to disarmament and international peace, and he participated in the formation of the League of Nations and the United Nations. Blessed with a talent for middle-distance running, he took part in three Olympics, captaining the British track team at the 1920 and 1924 Games. (The 1924 Games were immortalized in the film Chariots of Fire.) His official biography on Nobelprize.org contains a line you don’t often find on other Laureates’ pages: “Although his days of active participation in track have long since passed, Noel-Baker retains the lean look of the athlete and an absorption in athletics.”

Some sources claim that the Danish physicist Niels Bohr was part of the Danish soccer team that won a silver medal in the 1908 summer Olympics. But that honour went to his younger brother Harald. Niels may have played in goal for the same Danish club side as his brother, but Harald was the only Bohr selected to play for the silver-medal winning national side. Harald also studied mathematics, and such was the public response to the team’s achievement in the 1908 Olympics, it’s claimed that when he defended his doctoral thesis a few years later, the audience contained more football fans than mathematicians. I wonder what they chanted during his defence.

Number 1 pop song

Nowadays, Charles Gates Dawes is perhaps remembered more for his contribution to pop music than his 1925 Nobel Peace Prize. Dawes was a self-taught pianist and composer, and lyrics were added to his 1912 composition, “Melody in A Major”, to become a song called “It’s All In The Game”, which became a number 1 hit in the US and UK for Tommy Edwards in 1958. A host of artists have covered this song since then, including Nat “King” Cole, Elton John and Keith Jarrett.

 

For the record, Dawes received his Peace Prize for his League of Nations report on German reparation payments after World War I. Like Al Gore, Dawes also held the position of Vice-President, though Dawes’ term is generally considered to be one of the worst ever. “Hell’n Maria” Dawes (as he was known, this being his favourite expression) wasn’t Calvin “Silent Cal” Coolidge’s first choice as running-mate, they were barely on speaking terms with each other, and Dawes didn’t attend cabinet meetings. Even his Senate biography says witheringly: “[H]is tenure was not a satisfying or productive one, nor did it stand as a model for others to follow.

Cricket

Being a Brit and a cricket lover I have to include this one, but if you have no appetite for the sound of leather on willow, or have no idea what that expression means, I suggest you skip this part… 

There’s only one first-class cricketer to win a Nobel Prize, and horror upon horrors, he isn’t British. This honour goes to the Irish-born playwright and novelist Samuel Beckett, best known for the absurdist drama Waiting for Godot. The 1969 Literature Laureate played two first-class games for Dublin University against Northamptonshire in 1925 and 1926. Described in the cricketing bible Wisden as “a left-hand opening batsman, possessing what he himself called a gritty defence, and a useful left-arm medium-pace bowler”, Becket never lost his affection for cricket.

Million-dollar quiz prize

When George Smoot received the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics for years of work that recorded the faint echoes of the birth of the universe, he received one half of the prize amount, around $800,000. Three years later, he won a bigger cash prize on the US TV quiz “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? Appearing as the final contestant on the last episode of the game show, which posed grade-school level questions to adults, he reached the final question: “What U.S. state is home to Acadia National Park?” Smoot gave the correct answer “Maine”, and in doing so became the second person (and the first man) to win the $1million top prize.

 

The week in links (20-27 November 2011)

This year’s Nobel Peace Prize might have shone a spotlight on women in Liberia, but the threat of rape still looms large: http://bit.ly/tWfiBM

Lech Walesa’s wife’s frank biography is causing a stir in Poland, because she describes the loneliness and domestic grind she faced as her husband rose to power: http://reut.rs/rCMdl4

On Wired Science blogs, David Dobbs describes the only time Gabriel Garcia Marquez met fellow Literature Laureate Ernest Hemingway: http://bit.ly/uB3EKJ

After boycotting last year’s election in Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy voted unanimously to re-enter the formal political process: http://bit.ly/tViUph

If you like the classic photograph taken at the 1927 Solvay physics conference, in which 17 of the 29 attendees were or became Nobel Laureates, check out the video: http://bit.ly/178B1t

“The Swedes have made a serious error by giving the prize to a writer whose limited talent is in his best books watered down by 10th-rate philosophizing”. The New York Times in response to John Steinbeck’s Literature Prize in 1962: http://bit.ly/rMEKL6

“A great deal of prejudice is built-in.” Video interview with Nobel Laureate and father of behavioural economics, Daniel Kahneman, on the cognitive biases that affect our decision-making: http://bit.ly/szs086

ZDNet’s handy take-away guide to graphene: http://bit.ly/uJS2uO

The bravest person Martin Luther King said he ever met was Norman Thomas, a white-haired ex-preacher and leader of the Socialist Party of America. http://bit.ly/tZhJ3V

There’s been little coverage of the death of Har Gobind Khorana, 1968 Medicine Laureate, so it’s nice to see this multi-part series on the man who with Marshall Nirenberg and Robert Holley broke the genetic code. http://bit.ly/tM7awZ http://bit.ly/uE3nc8

People are more vain about their prowess at hobbies than their life’s work, says John Casey in his new book. For example, there was the time Nobel Laureate Harold Varmus got miffed when a Swedish newspaper ran a photo of him taking a tumble on his skis: http://on.wsj.com/sswEzE

Chicago will host the 12th annual World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates in April 2012: http://cbsloc.al/vTp565

So what’s the big deal about “so”?

So it seems that some people take issue with the widespread usage of the word “so” to begin sentences. “If you speak English for work or pleasure, there is a fair chance that you’ve done it, too.” wrote Anand Giridharadas in the New York Times last year. “No longer content to lurk in the middle of sentences, it has jumped to the beginning, where it can portend many things: transition, certitude, logic, attentiveness, a major insight.”

This morning BBC Radio 4’s Today programme featured a mini rant on the subject. (Audio clip might be accessible in the UK-only, apologies if so.) John Rentoul, author of The Banned List: A Manifesto Against Jargon and Cliché explained why promoting this two-letter word to the beginning of a sentence has become a plague. As he said:

It’s the first on a three-part scale of offences against the English language, because you can start with “So”, then “And so”, and the worst of all is “And so it begins”.

According to Rentoul, this probably originates from posting comments on the Internet, which provides a handy device for grabbing other people’s attention instantly. Rentoul’s assertion might not be too far off the mark, as Giridharadas wrote in his New York Times article Silicon Valley might be the source of this plague:

The journalist Michael Lewis picked it up when researching his 1999 book ”The New New Thing”: ”When a computer programmer answers a question,” he wrote, ”he often begins with the word ‘so.”’ Microsoft employees have long argued that the ”so” boom began with them.

So, why bother mentioning this on Nobel Prize Watch? Well, in the literary world perhaps the best-known and most subversive use of “so” at the beginning of a sentence is by the Irish poet and Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney. His translation of the Anglo Saxon epic poem Beowulf doesn’t employ the word “so” to begin any old sentence, he uses the word to begin the first sentence of the first verse.

Previous translations of the original Old English sentence “Hwæt. We Gardena    in gear-dagum”, adhered to the poem’s complex style, resulting in somewhat archaic-looking sentences such as “What ho! We’ve heard the glory / of Spear-Danes, clansmen-kings.” In Heaney’s hands, the translation reads like a poem in its own right, and his first sentence becomes: “So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by.”

As Heaney himself explained, he wanted his version of Beowulf to sound like it could be spoken by descendants of the characters. He said:

I therefore tried to frame the famous opening lines in cadences that would have suited their voices, but that still echoed with the sound and sense of the Anglo-Saxon…

Conventional renderings of hwæt, the first word of the poem, tend towards the archaic literary, with ‘lo’, ‘hark’, ‘behold’, ‘attend’ and – more colloquially – ‘listen’ being some of the solutions offered previously. But in Hiberno-English Scullion-speak, the particle ‘so’ came naturally to the rescue, because in that idiom ‘so’ operates as an expression that obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention. So, ‘so’ it was.

Or as the writer, editor and publisher Eric McMillan says, the first line of Heaney’s translation is the equivalent of beginning an anecdote like “So. A guy walks into a bar…”.

 

China, Norway and the continuing Peace Prize row

So far, this blog has looked at coverage of his year’s Nobel Prizes, but there’s been a notable lack of coverage for one prize that is worth highlighting here.

While news spread far and wide of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman for “their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work”, full marks to The Atlantic for noticing that the Chinese state news agency, Xinhua, only ran a three-paragraph brief on the news. Other major Chinese sites didn’t cover the news at all (see here, here and here).

If you recall, last year’s Peace Prize went to imprisoned dissident Chinese writer and human rights advocate Liu Xiaobo. Neither Liu nor his wife, Liu Xia, were allowed to attend the prize ceremony last December in Oslo — the medal placed on an empty chair providing one of the most defining images of last year’s awards.

Any idea the Peace Prize Committee had in their Award Ceremony speech that highlighting the connection between human rights and peace would provide “a prerequisite for the “fraternity between nations, of which Alfred Nobel wrote in his will” has not come to fruition. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Chinese officials blasted the Nobel committee for awarding the prize to a convicted man who they say was trying to subvert the Chinese government. The Confucius Prize was set up as a domestic-based alternative but as I noted before its future already appears to be in doubt. Though the Norwegian Nobel Committee operates independently from the government, diplomatic ties between China and Norway, which were chilly even before the announcement in 2009 (according to the published cables from WikiLeaks), have become deep frozen – trade rules over salmon being the latest episode in this saga.

Meanwhile, Liu is still in jail, serving out an 11-year sentence. Liu Xia, who had enjoyed relative freedom even after her husband was sentenced in December 2009, was placed under unofficial house arrest in Beijing shortly after the 2010 Peace Prize announcement, where she still remains.

“As far as I know, the way she is treated is unprecedented in the history of the Nobel Peace Prize,” Norwegian Nobel Committee secretary Geir Lundestad told Associated Press. “Her situation is extremely regrettable.”

The day of the 2011 Peace Prize announcement was described as an “awkward anniversary in China” by Evan Osnos on the New Yorker blog. As Osnos notes, the country’s obsession with the Nobel Prizes runs to the extent that the title of a science programme on Chinese state television a few years ago was entitled “How far are we from a Nobel Prize?

The term “China’s Nobel complex” was coined by Professor Julia Lovell to define the paradox that the country faces since re-entering the international community in the 1980s. China sees Nobel Prizes like Olympic gold medals, demonstrating global recognition as a modern world power, yet the authorities resent seeking validation from outsiders. This resentment grows to anger when the state perceives outsiders to be exploiting “Western” values to discredit their history and traditions, as was the case with the 2010 Peace Prize, and also with the 2000 Literature Prize to the dissident writer Gao Xingjian.

It’s an obsession I have experienced first-hand. As an editor at Nature Publishing Group who helped to organize a conference series in China and who visited several laboratories, the burning question almost all senior academics wanted me to answer was what would it take to have a “homegrown Nobel Prize?” (My answer, rather weak I admit, was to say that while there might be the talent, you have to create and nurture a culture and environment similar to what you would find in so-called “Nobel-worthy” institutions.) My first experience of Nobel Week in December 2007 coincided with a visiting delegation from China, with the question foremost in their minds. Nobel committee members have come under fire for accepting paid-for trips to China, though a probe by the Swedish government anti-corruption body found no evidence of bribery, concluding that the prize selection process is too complex for any individual to have a significant influence.

Despite last year’s Peace Prize, China’s Nobel obsession hasn’t dimmed, reports Osnos. Over the past few months the state press has feverishly covered anything that can be associated with the Nobel name — from headlining this year’s Lasker Award to the Chinese scientist Tu Youyou as ‘America’s Nobel’, to reporting the opening of the recent Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting on Economic Sciences. And as far as I can tell, science laureates visiting China are still treated like celebrities, with lectures packed to the rafters, unlike similar lectures in say, the US and UK.

But any thought that China might concede some ground on the Peace Prize in pursuit of their Nobel dreams in science has received a rude shock in the last few days. Last week, Norway’s foreign minister, Jonas Gahr Støre wrote some conciliatory words in a full-page commentary in Norway’s leading business newspaper Dagens Næringsliv, saying that the Norwegian government has taken China’s angry reaction seriously, understands that they are upset, but hopes that moves can be made to restore relations. This olive branch offering was rejected by China yesterday; a statement from the Chinese embassy in Oslo saying that the Norwegian government “supported this wrong decision”, and that “we expect that the Norwegian side will make tangible efforts to restore and develop the bilateral relations.”

What form these “tangible efforts” could take isn’t clear. As this article notes, it could require an apology from the Norwegian government for supporting the Peace Prize, which would be an unprecedented move, or perhaps a statement of regret from the Norwegian government regarding China’s offence at Norway’s support for the prize. Whatever the outcome, it looks like China’s response to “losing face” over the Peace Prize is to push the Norwegian government towards a similar outcome.

The 2011 Nobel Prizes in quotes

“The decision to award the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to the late Ralph Steinman shall remain unchanged… The events that have occurred are unique and, to the best of our knowledge, are unprecedented in the history of the Nobel Prize… The decision to award the Nobel Prize to Ralph Steinman was made in good faith, based on the assumption that the Nobel Laureate was alive.”

Statement from the Nobel Foundation to confirm that Ralph Steinman would still be awarded the Medicine Prize, despite dying three days before the announcement was made.

 

“We got the first call from a reporter from Sweden, who asked me how I felt. And I said “How do I feel about what?” And he told me that we’d won the Prize and my wife, of course, rushed to the computer to check to see whether this was a hoax!”

Saul Perlmutter, 2011 Nobel Laureate in Physics, on not knowing he had been awarded the prize.

 

“The phone rang, it was 5:30, and it was Swedish-sounding people, and I knew they weren’t from Ikea.”

Adam Riess on being woken up by the call to tell him he had been awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics.

 

“The biggest day of my life, I am trending on the Australia twitter… but I am still behind Happy National Taco Day? I have a lot to learn.”

Brian Schuldt, 2011 Nobel Laureate in Physics, on Twitter (aka @cosmicpinot)

 

“Danny Shechtman is talking nonsense. There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists.”

Criticism Daniel Shechtman said he received from two-time Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling, who never accepted the findings that eventually led to the 2011 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

 

“2am in Haifa. What a day. If you’re a scientist and believe in your results, then fight for them. Even when Linus says you’re wrong. Danny”

Daniel Schechtman on Twitter (@danschechtman)

 

“Transtömer!”

Headline on the front page of the Culture section of Swedish daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter to celebrate the Stockholm-based poet’s Nobel Prize in Literature — the first Swedish Literature Prize since 1974.

 

“At first we had him down as a rank outsider but the committee have been known to spring a shock and punters the world over feel Dylan will be the beneficiary.”

Ladbrokes commenting on a rush of bets on Bob Dylan that brought his odds down from 100/1 to 5/1 favourite the day before the Literature Prize announcement.

 

“It sends out a message to the Arab world that you can’t ignore women if you want a democratic society.”

Thorbjørn Jagland, the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee during the 2011 Peace Prize announcement.

 

“Truly women have a place, truly women have a face, and truly the world has not been functioning well without the input, in every sphere, of women.”

Leymah Gbowee, 2011 Nobel Peace Laureate on the message she hopes her award will bring to the world.

 

“I feel very happy and I want to be like my mum in the future.”

Tawakul Karman’s 14-year-old daughter in response to the celebrations for the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.

 

“I’m not so sure it’s right to say we have worked together; it’s more that we have a series of continuing arguments many of which are still going on as I slowly persuade him of the error of his earlier positions.”

Christopher Sims on fellow Economics Laureate, Thomas Sargent, at a joint press conference.

 

 

“We are basically statistical historians”

Thomas Sargent, 2011 Economic Sciences Laureate with Sims, at the same press conference