What is Nobel Week really about?

As Nobel laureates, foreign media and a host of other dignitaries descend on Stockholm for the week of festivities culminating with the Nobel Banquet on Monday, Charlotte West recalls her conversations with two of last year’s winners about the real significance of Nobel Week.

In the midst of all the fanfare, the 10,000 flowers, the $1.5 million prize and speculations about which spectacular dress Queen Silvia will don at the banquet, it is easy to lose sight of the achievements on which Nobel Week is founded.

In his will, Alfred Nobel created the prize to honour those who have “conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” While the precise meaning of that statement has been the subject of great debate, its essence relates to recognizing those individuals who have made a measurable and meaningful contribution – whether in the form of scientific discoveries, inspirational words or heroic actions – to society.

While I had certainly heard of the Nobel Prize while growing up, the first time I really took notice of it was at my college graduation in Seattle, where our commencement address was given by Leland Hartwell, a cancer research pioneer and the winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine. He made a reference to standing on stage with the king and queen of Sweden. My ears immediately perked up as I was planning to move to Stockholm the following autumn.

Yet I still had no idea of what that really meant. When I began attending Stockholm University that fall, I was surprised to learn that many of the Nobel laureates would be giving their lectures in the Aula Magna auditorium on campus – and what’s more, that anyone could attend.

These public lectures, presented by the laureates in their respective fields, offer a rare chance to hear what some of the greatest minds of our time have to say. This openness and accessibility are one of the hallmarks of the award. In other words, by making the laureates’ words, and in a sense, the laureates themselves, accessible to the public, the Nobel Prize recognizes that knowledge is not the exclusive domain of the academic elite.

Last December, I had the opportunity to interview 2006 Nobel laureates Dr. Andrew Fire (Medicine/physiology) and Dr. Roger Kornberg (Chemistry), who both came from Stanford University. They each reflected on the benefits, as well as on the responsibilities, of what it means to be a Nobel laureate.

Fire said that being a recipient of a Nobel award gave him the chance to reach a broader audience. “That means one has to be careful but it is also an opportunity to speak up about things. And people over the years have really taken advantage of those opportunities, mostly for good. Scientists who have been in a position to get the ear of the leadership have said things that have really steered society in directions that are important,” he said.

Kornberg similarly spoke of the responsibilities that accompany the Nobel Prize. “I think it puts a bit of a burden on us for a time, to convey the message that all scientists have with regard to support of research and its importance in society. It’s a message that needs to be repeated as often as possible, so it’s our job to do so,” he said.

The responsibility to convey the message about the importance of science and the pursuit of knowledge is not reserved to the laureates in the hard sciences. While the prizes in chemistry, physics and medicine bring ground-breaking scientific research into the public eye, the Nobel Peace Prize and the literature prize bring the human quotient to the table.

Over the years, the literature lectures have dabbled in everything from meditations on the creative process and the future of literature to polemic discussions of global politics and the evils of war. For instance, Harold Pinter in his 2005 speech, Art, Truth & Politics, chastised Bush and Blair for their perpetration of the Iraq war. This year’s literature laureate, Doris Lessing, spoke out against Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe, saying that books – the foundation of literacy and the stuff great writers are made of – will remain endangered species in the country as long as he remains at the political helm. “Writers are not made in Zimbabwe. Not easily, not under Mugabe,” she said.

The lecture thus provided Lessing with a platform to speak her mind, while the world was listening. But perhaps more essentially, the Nobel lectures also serve to inspire, something which Lessing said was an essential ingredient for the creative process. Writers, she said, must have access to a “space, which is like a form of listening, of attention” from which “will come the words, the words your characters will speak, ideas – inspiration.”

Despite the fact that Lessing was too ill to travel to Stockholm to deliver her Nobel lecture herself, her words, her message could not have been clearer. As I left the Swedish Academy on Friday, I felt a sense of intellectual wonderment that I have not experienced in a long time. In this sense, her Nobel lecture provided the impetus for inspiration, which as she said herself, is essential to any successful literary (or scientific, for that matter) pursuit.

The only remaining Nobel lecture this year is the Peace lecture, scheduled to be given by former US Vice President Al Gore on Monday at 1 pm (CET) in Oslo, where he is expected to speak out about the climate crisis. At a press conference following the announcement of the Peace Prize in October, Gore said, “We have to quickly find a way to change the world’s consciousness about exactly what we’re facing.”

Perhaps Gore’s Nobel Peace Prize lecture will be one step in the right direction.

See a live webcast of Gore’s Nobel Peace Prize lecture during the Nobel Peace Prize Award Ceremony at the Oslo City Hall on Monday, December 10th. 12:50 p.m. – 2:15 p.m. (CET).