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Stockholm University: A very Nobel institution

Stockholm University and its associates probably have a closer link with the Nobel Prize than any other educational institute in the world. To explain why requires a look back into the history of Sweden and its capital.

Stockholm University: A very Nobel institution

From a historical perspective, the city, and its high seats of learning have developed hand in hand and the fact that the two are tied so closely has been of mutual benefit and significance ever since the prizes were first awarded.

Sweden has a long and proud history of academic excellence, with universities dating back to the 15th Century.

Stockholm University itself was established as a University college as early as 1878, eventually to gain full university status in 1960. Thanks in part to Alfred Nobel, its importance gained momentum in the early 1900s.

“One of the main external factors in Stockholm’s success is the connection with the Nobel Prizes,” says Stockholm University history professor Lars Nilsson.

At the university itself, Nobel forms one of the busiest and most significant highlights of the annual calendar.

A series of events are held each year, culminating in the ceremony itself and the social highlight of the year, the post Nobel-Fest party.

Although the ceremony doesn't take place until December 10, Stockholm University’s involvement begins much earlier, playing a key role in the committees appointed to decide the winners of the Nobel Prizes, as well as the Economic Sciences Award.

The complex process of choosing Nobel Prize winners in chemistry, physics, and economics is carried out by three committees at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, with the secretaries of the Committees of Chemistry and Physics Prizes both professors at Stockholm University.

Astrid Gräslund, a Professor at the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, is secretary of the chemistry committee, while Professor of Organic Chemistry Jan-Erling Bäckvall, is also a member.

Gräslund is fully aware that Nobel week has much more than merely a historical significance for the capital.

“December 10 is perhaps the one day of the year when Stockholm is in the spotlight more than any other, from the international journalists to the limousines out on the streets. It really feels like an extra special occasion for the city and the people,” she says.

The Secretary of the Nobel Committee for Physics, Professor Lars Bergström works at Stockholm University's Department of Physics. Meanwhile, four university researchers are members of the Committee for the Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel.

Elsewhere, Kjell Espmark, Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Stockholm University is a member of the Swedish Academy's Nobel Committee for Literature, while Anders Olsson, Professor of Literature, and Goran Malmqvist, Professor Emeritus of Chinese, are two of the eighteen voting members of the Swedish Academy.

Furthermore, Johan Rockström, Professor in natural resource management was also appointed Chair of the Nobel Laureate Symposium in 2011. Rockström, who is also Executive Director of Stockholm Resilience Centre, is an internationally renowned expert on global sustainability issues and was awarded 'Swede of the Year' in 2009 for his work on climate change.

And Ariel Goobar, another professor from the university is part of the research group led by Saul Perlmutter, the Nobel Laureate in Physics for 2011.

With so many links to the prize committees, it is little wonder why Stockholm University takes such pride in its Nobel links.

Once the names of the Laureates have been chosen, preparations begin for the ceremony itself and a whole host of events around the awards begins.

Every year prizewinners hold a lecture in the Aula of the university, which will take place this year on December 8. “It is a huge thing for the university, both for its own reputation, as well as for current students,” says Astrid Gräslund.

“The Aula can hold some 1,000 people, so it gives the students and lecturers from the university the chance to hear the lectures and feel part of the event. It is certainly one of the highlights of the academic year for many who study here.”

This year’s Nobel Prize Laureate in Literature, Mo Yan, will visit Stockholm University and read excerpts from his work in the Aula Magna.

Yan, who in addition to his novels has published numerous essays and novellas is one of China's foremost writers, whose work is often compared stylistically to the likes of William Faulkner and Gabriel García Márquez.

For those wishing to attend, the event takes place on December 9 and after his readings Mo Yan will answer questions from the audience.

Last year's literature prize honour went to Tomas Tranströmer, a Stockholm University alumni and the first Swede in 40 years to be awarded the prize, who also made an appearance.

The Swedish poet, an honorary doctor as well as a former employee at the University read literature and poetics at what was Stockholm University College at the time, before becoming Stockholm University in 1960.

Tranströmer joined a small and exclusive group of academics with connections to the university to be honoured.

The first was Svante Arrhenius, who took the 1903 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, the first of four Swedes to take the prize; Hans von Euler-Chelpin won in 1929, George de Hevesy 14 years later, and in 1995, Paul Crutzen’s Nobel award came for his research on the ozone layer in the atmosphere.

Beyond chemistry, the Economics Prize was awarded to another former Stockholm University student, Gunnar Myrdal in 1974, for his work in monetary and economic theory.

But Nobel is not all just about academic achievements for Stockholm University. Each year the students get the chance to take part in the Nobel Nightcap, the traditional post-ceremony party.

The original idea for the party came about in 1978, when one student felt that festivities ended far too early in the evening, considering the profile and significance of the event and the banquet.

It has become an integral part of Nobel week and an unmissable memory for all who take part.

It rounds off what is a highlight for all those studying in the city, and Stockholm’s chance to once again show the rest of the world why it has such a sky-high reputation.

This article was produced by The Local and sponsored by Stockholm University.

NOBEL

US duo win Nobel for work on how heat and touch spark signals to the brain

US scientists David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian on Monday won the Nobel Medicine Prize for discoveries on receptors for temperature and touch.

US duo win Nobel for work on how heat and touch spark signals to the brain
Thomas Perlmann (right), the Secretary of the Nobel Committee, stands next to a screen showing David Julius (L) and Ardem Patapoutian, winners of the 2021 Nobel Prize for Medicine. Photo: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP

“The groundbreaking discoveries… by this year’s Nobel Prize laureates have allowed us to understand how heat, cold and mechanical force can initiate the nerve impulses that allow us to perceive and adapt to the world,” the Nobel jury said.

The pair’s research is being used to develop treatments for a wide range of diseases and conditions, including chronic pain. Julius, who in 2019 won the $3-million Breakthrough Prize in life sciences, said he was stunned to receive the call from the Nobel committee early Monday.

“One never really expects that to happen …I thought it was a prank,” he told Swedish Radio.

The Nobel Foundation meanwhile posted a picture of Patapoutian next to his son Luca after hearing the happy news.

Our ability to sense heat, cold and touch is essential for survival, the Nobel Committee explained, and underpins our interaction with the world around us.

“In our daily lives we take these sensations for granted, but how are nerve impulses initiated so that temperature and pressure can be perceived? This question has been solved by this year’s Nobel Prize laureates.”

Prior to their discoveries, “our understanding of how the nervous system senses and interprets our environment still contained a fundamental unsolved question: how are temperature and mechanical stimuli converted into electrical impulses in the nervous system.”

Grocery store research

Julius, 65, was recognised for his research using capsaicin — a compound from chili peppers that induces a burning sensation — to identify which nerve sensors in the skin respond to heat.

He told Scientific American in 2019 that he got the idea to study chili peppers after a visit to the grocery store.  “I was looking at these shelves and shelves of basically chili peppers and extracts (hot sauce) and thinking, ‘This is such an important and such a fun problem to look at. I’ve really got to get serious about this’,” he said.

Patapoutian’s pioneering discovery was identifying the class of nerve sensors that respond to touch.

Julius, a professor at the University of California in San Francisco and the 12-year-younger Patapoutian, a professor at Scripps Research in California, will share the Nobel Prize cheque for 10 million Swedish kronor ($1.1 million, one million euros).

The pair were not among the frontrunners mentioned in the speculation ahead of the announcement.

Pioneers of messenger RNA (mRNA) technology, which paved the way for mRNA Covid vaccines, and immune system researchers had been widely tipped as favourites.

While the 2020 award was handed out in the midst of the pandemic, this is the first time the entire selection process has taken place under the shadow of Covid-19.

Last year, the award went to three virologists for the discovery of the Hepatitis C virus.

Media, Belarus opposition for Peace Prize?

The Nobel season continues on Tuesday with the award for physics and Wednesday with chemistry, followed by the much-anticipated prizes for literature on Thursday and peace on Friday before the economics prize winds things up on Monday, October 11.

For the Peace Prize on Friday, media watchdogs such as Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists have been mentioned as possible winners, as has the Belarusian opposition spearheaded by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Also mentioned are climate campaigners such as Sweden’s Greta Thunberg and her Fridays for Future movement.

Meanwhile, for the Literature Prize on Thursday, Stockholm’s literary circles have been buzzing with the names of dozens of usual suspects.

The Swedish Academy has only chosen laureates from Europe and North America since 2012 when China’s Mo Yan won, raising speculation that it could choose to rectify that imbalance this year. A total of 95 of 117 literature laureates have come from Europe and North America.

While the names of the Nobel laureates are kept secret until the last minute, the Nobel Foundation has already announced that the glittering prize ceremony and banquet held in Stockholm in December for the science and literature laureates will not happen this year due to the pandemic.

Like last year, laureates will receive their awards in their home countries. A decision has yet to be made about the lavish Peace Prize ceremony held in Oslo on the same day.

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