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. http://svt.se/nobel

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. http://nobelpeacecenter.org/english/?did=9087488

If you haven’t seen the inspiring and humbling Nobel Peace Prize speeches, I urge you to read them. http://bit.ly/rraufF http://bit.ly/sdM1YV http://bit.ly/uWv69t

… and see the CNN interview afterwards, where the question of tokenism is dispatched pretty sharpish.  http://bit.ly/tAnbnt

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

If you care about your daughters, don’t let them watch the Nobel Prize ceremony. http://bit.ly/sZhYJF

But if you want royal fashions during the Nobel Prize ceremony, I’ll give you royal fashions. http://bit.ly/rRn1dL All eyes were on Crown Princess Victoria, who is 6 months pregnant. http://bit.ly/sUvqWVAnd here’s some other people you won’t recognize too. http://bit.ly/suu9NO

And here’s the slacker’s guide to winning a Nobel Prize http://ow.ly/7V8IZ

Nobel Week: Laureates
Nice New York Times profile of this year’s Economics Laureates – Intellectual sparring partners for 40 yrs & now reluctant celebrities. http://nyti.ms/vxCN6E

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. http://bit.ly/va4Xml

Excellent profile of Dan Shechtman, the Chemistry Laureate who was told he was a disgrace after showing colleagues his groundbreaking quasicrystal result. http://bit.ly/ul9qQx

Charming profile of Tomas Tranströmer, which provides a taste of how popular his award of the Nobel Prize is in his home country. http://bit.ly/vmAK75

Did you know this year’s Literature Laureate is a keen entomologist & even has a beetle named after him? http://bit.ly/v49zra

This year’s Nobel Prize Banquet menu… which for some inexplicable reason is always kept a secret until the guests are seated. http://t.co/P3kAKyZj

Don’t often see this. The Wall Street Journal ran an ad from NYU Stern congratulate Thomas Sargent on his Nobel Prize. http://ow.ly/i/n6Ir

And in other news… 

Physics
Physicists offer their thoughts on whether they think the Higgs boson real, including a limerick from one Nobel Laureate. http://bit.ly/rBg2Ig

If the Higgs boson is found, then which of at least 6 possible contenders would get a Nobel Prize for it? http://natpo.st/vrwoIn

Chemistry
Excellent piece of scientific history: Scientific American defends Marie Curie—and women scientists—in 1911. http://bit.ly/szbFI4 

Literature
Sotherby’s are auctioning manuscripts by only Arab writer to win Literature Nobel Prize. Cost? A cool £50-70K. http://bit.ly/vPs4uZ

Peace
“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. http://nyti.ms/uZBBou

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. http://on.wsj.com/vWRQsv

Meanwhile, China’s Nobel-naysaying alternative honours Vladimir Putin with Confucius Peace Prize. http://wapo.st/vPZXoQ

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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.

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.

 

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…”.

 

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

2011 Prize in Economic Sciences goes to cause and effect in macroeconomics

The 2011 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel was awarded to Thomas Sargent and Christopher Sims “for their empirical research on cause and effect in the macroeconomy”.

The official background information for the public does a good job of explaining the achievements behind the prize, beginning as follows:

How are GDP and inflation affected by a temporary increase in the interest rate or a tax cut? What happens if a central bank makes a permanent change in its inflation target or a government modifies its objective for budgetary balance? This year’s Laureates in economic sciences, Thomas J. Sargent and Christopher A. Sims, have developed methods for answering these and many other questions regarding the causal relationship between economic policy and different macroeconomic variables such as GDP, inflation, employment and investments.

Perhaps, you’d prefer an explanation under 140 characters? Well, a summary was provided in tweet form by Tim Harford, the Undercover Economist at the Financial Times and author of Adapt.

If this has given you an appetite to learn more about the subject, I strongly recommend that you follow Tyler Cowan and Alex Tabbarok’s excellent coverage at Marginal Revolution. There you’ll find some background on the Laureates, context on the key achievements, and links to papers, presentations, videos and much more. If someone combined this approach with The Guardian’s live blog format, which posted reactions from experts in the field, you’d pretty much have my perfect one-stop-shop for Nobel coverage.

For now, though, I’ll leave the last word to someone who took a rather different slant on the news…

 

Could the Literature Prize result have been leaked?

The Swedish daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter has an intriguing article titled “The odds indicate a leak” about the betting in the run-up to yesterday’s Literature Prize. As I mentioned yesterday there was a rush in betting for Tomas Tranströmer just before his name was read out, but I hadn’t realised his odds had plunged from 13 to 1.66.

You can see the original article in Swedish here. Many thanks to Britt Warg for bringing this article to my attention, and for providing an English translation, which you can read below. (I’ve only included the relevant excerpts.)

This could, of course, have been due to a rush of domestic bets hoping for a home-grown favourite to scoop the prize. Or not. If I hear any more I’ll update this post.

The odds indicate a leak
Published today 14:16

The odds at the betting company Ladbrokes suggests a leak of the acknowledgement that the poet Tomas Tranströmer was to be awarded this year’s Nobel prize in Literature.

The betting changed significantly this morning and Tranströmer went high. That’s unusual, says Sofia Hjärtberg, press officer at Ladbrokes in Sweden.

For the whole week, Bob Dylan has topped the list at Ladbrokes. Then, a bid for Dylan would have given six times the money.

Tomas Tranströmer, on the other hand, had not been as ‘hot’. Up until Thursday morning, he had 13[/1] as odds.
But shortly after 9am (local time), people began to suspect something was wrong.
Suddenly the bids for Tomas Tranströmer started to flood in – they were both numerous and high. In an hour’s time, the odds had gone down from 13 to 1.66. 
— We have never seen such a change, says Sofia Hjärtberg.

 

Ladbrokes have been offering betting for the Literature Prize since 2003. Three years ago, when the Frenchman Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio received the prize, the company had to close the bidding as the bids for him literary exploded just a day or so before he was awarded the price.
— We felt something was wrong so we closed down the game.
No such drastic measures this year then?
— No, this happened so quickly, so we didn’t do that. Those who put down their odds at 9am when the odds were still at 13 have made good money on this. After that time, they all went downhill quickly, says Sofia Hjärtberg