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Talks by Nobel Laureates

You needed a ticket to attend the talk by the Nobel Laureate in Literature. She delivered it in Polish but was simultanously translated into Swedish while the audience could read printed English translation. Here is Wislawa Szymborskha's clever beginning:

They say the first sentence in any speech is always the hardest. Well, that one's behind me, anyway. But I have a feeling that the sentences to come - the third, the sixth, ... - will be just as hard, since I'm supposed to talk about poetry. I/ve said very little on the subject, next to nothing, in fact. And whenever I have said anything, I have always had the sneaking suspicion that I'm not very good at it. That is why my lecture will be rather short. All imperfection is easier to tolerate if served up in small doses.
But you could just show up for the Physics or Chemistry Talks on Saturday at the Royal Academy of Sciences. Since there were six laureates, this took all day with physics in the morning and chemistry in the afternoon. If you were lucky (i.e., a member of the academy or a guest of a laureate) you got lunch. At the break all others were told (in Swedish) that they had to find their own lunch.

The Physics Laureates spoke in the order: Lee, Richardson and Osheroff. They spread the topics out with Lee spending some time on atomic hydrogen, emphasizing connections to helium three that I had never thought about. Richardson concentrated on the Pomeranchuk effect, a cooling technique dreamed up by a theorist a decade before there was liquid helium. Osheroff described the process from the standpoint of the graduate student, including selected comments out of his lab notebooks at the time. For many this was an effective talk because it took you back to the moment of creation. They worked hard to put the work in context, even making an effective connection with magnetic imaging.

The Chemistry Laureates spoke in the order: Smalley, Curl, Kroto. Smalley gave a version I had heard before so often so that I fell asleep in the talk and was captured by the TV (and even the newspapers). Fortunately my bobbing head was not identified; but I did run into Swedes who recognized me. Curl gave a fairly chemical talk (indeed Richardson kept falling asleep thru it but had his wife Betty to keep waking him up). Wisely chosen as the last speaker, Kroto put on the real show of the day, including handing out samples and models to pass thru the hall. At the end he called all the Chemistry Laureates together with the two graduate students who were on *the* paper and still in chemistry.

Later this lead some of us to wonder if Doug Osheroff would have been on the prize if he had not gone to Bell Labs and continued to make important helium-three contributions. Likewise, if Kratschmer and Huffman had not five years later found a way to make large quantities of C-60 and confirm the structural conjectures of the Nature 1985 paper, would buckyballs be a household word?

The Award Ceremony

The prizes (gold medal and certificate) are passed out in the late afternoon (4 pm) of the anniversary of Nobel's death (10 December 1896). Most of the audience has been invited to the banquet and is already dressed in white-tie (and tails) or ball gowns. Others wear dark business suits.

On the stage are the members of the relevant academies (typical 18 members in physics, chemistry, medicine/physiology, and literature). Just before the start of the ceremony, the respective chairs of the academies enter. Then the perspective Laureates walk in and sit in row on the left hand side of stage before the academies. Shortly thereafter the King, Queen and Queen Mother take seats on the right hand side in front of the academies. Prior to this we have been hearing music (Mozart) played by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra.

This year -- the 100th since Nobel's death -- we had a speech (in Swedish, with English translation provided to the audience) by Professor Bengt Samuelsson, chair of the Board of the Nobel Foundation. Then some more music including a soprano singing Mozart. The prizes are awarded in the order: Physics and Chemistry; some more music (Sibelius); Physiology or Medicine; some more music (Grieg); Literature; music (baritone singing Mozart); Economic Sciences; the Swedish national anthem, followed by a march by Alfven during which everyone leaves (the King first).

The presentation of the prizes is simple: The chair of relevant academy that made the selection gives a short speech (in Swedish) on the prize, switching into a language understood by the recipient to say:

You have been awarded the 1996 Nobel Prize in Physics for your discovery of superfluidity in helium-3. Your discovery greatly enlarged our knowledge of the possible states of condensed matter. On behalf of the Royal Swedish Academy, I wish to congratulate you on this achievement, and I now ask you to step forward and receive your Prize from the hand of the His Majesty the King.
Laureate and King meet in middle of stage. The King with his left hand passes boxes with prize and certificate to Laureate while with his right hand shakes that of the laureate.

The Laureate backs up a step or two; bows to the King; turns left to bow to the chair of Board; turns right to bow to audience which applauds; returns to chair.


At 7 pm the same day (10 December) 1278 people attend the banquet. There is a fierce struggle to get seats which cost roughly $250. There is a lottery for 200 students to buy tickets. In the audience are the CEO's of major companies some of whom had flown to Stockholm just for the banquet.

After you have been admitted to the City Hall by showing your ticket (which you get to keep), you pick up a small book (11.5 cm x 17.5 cm) with 71 pages listing the attendees alphabetically and by table. The book also has a foldout diagram showing the arrangements of the 66 tables.

In the center of room is the A table with 88 seats with the King and Queen, the Laureates and their wifes plus distinguished guests. Among these guests are the Ambassador of England, Norway, Poland, Switzerland, Australia and USA; various ministers in the Swedish government, some members of the academies and the Nobel Foundation.

Betty Richardson was between Kai Siegbahn (1981 physics laureate) and the economics minister; Dana Lee between Prime Minister and Smalley. These were in a row: Queen, Dave Lee, head of parliament, Bob Richardson, and wife of Doherty (prize winner in physiology. Across from her was Lady Kroto, Doug Osheroff, Lena Hjelm-Wallen (labor minister). Three seats down was the Ambassador of Switzerland, Phyllis Osheroff and the spouse of Hjelm-Wallen.

Outside this main table (A) were 24 tables (of 30 seats each) and these were flanked by 53 more tables (3 of 30, 3 of 20 and 32 of 10). One can only imagine the effort to construct the seating arrangements so that wives are close, but not too close to husbands, etc. Generally the sexes alternate but I had a man on my left -- so well connected and so discreet that I only got hints of why he was there; on my right the sister-in-law of the head of all the Swedish academies. She knew lots of details which she disbursed thru dinner.

It is a very formal dinner as is consistent with tails and ball gowns. There are two toasts at the beginning; one to the King and one by the King to Alfred Nobel and shortly after dinner toasts by the oldest Laureates for each Prize. For physics this was David Lee who did well.

There were three courses, each served simultaneously in that two waiters appeared at each table at the same time and very quickly served the item. The word `item' reflects the fact that the menu is in menu French which means that even speakers of French were mystified. This is deliberate. The first course was a ring mold (not of jello) but of lobster, broccoli and caviar. Next we were served a game bird, whose identity I still don't know, together with potatoes (this is Sweden after all!). The desert was a `panache' of ice cream and sorbet. The respective wines were 1990 Champagne Pommery, 1992 Chambolle-Musigny (!), and 1990 Chateau La Faurie-Peyraguey.

The first two courses were served to Tchaikovsky Polonaise from Eugene Onegin and Strauss's Persian March. In each case the waiter descended an impressive stairway from the the Golden Hall. For the desert, two huge `sails' were displayed and elegantly dressed retainers descended the stairway and we hear arias from Catalini's Wally (unknown to me), Saint-Saens' Samson and Dalila; the famous duet from Bizet's The Pearl Fishers; the quartet from Gonound's Romeo and Juliet; finally two singers were raised aloft to finish with the Barcarolle from Offenbach's the Tales of Hoffmann. This was fairly impressive to most mortals but my well informed table mate assured me it was below standards and I was able to agree by pointing out that 24 years ago I had heard a program by the legendary Elizabeth Soderstrom.

At this stage the King retires to a private room for audiences with distinguished guests (and I would suppose for security reasons) while the rest of us retire upstairs to the Golden Room (referring to the primary color of the wall decoration) for `digestifs' and dancing. Since mainly the students are dancing, the music is more modern than the entertainment between courses.

After this ends about midnight, you are welcomed to student parties which go on for hours. The prized guests are the Laureates of course. And Richardson was up to 5 am, and quite impressed by the elaborate decorations the students made for their parties.

Your comments and suggestions are appreciated.
[OSU Physics] [Ohio State University]
Edited by: [January 1997]