Postcard From Stockholm: Nobel Surprises

Arriving in Stockholm at night in early December, I was struck by the rows of lights in the windows of the lovely old buildings. It was Advent season, so most windows had sets of white candles – traditional symbols of hope in mid-winter. Gleaming snowy streets wound like trails through dark town. Stockholm is laced with canals whose inky edges were fringed with brightly lit white boats.

Stockholm view from Grand Hotel. Photo: Mel Matthews

Stockholm view from Grand Hotel. Photo: Mel MatthewsI came for the Nobel Prize awards. They are given by the Swedish king each December 10 to a handful of scientists and a literary figure, who thereby gain godlike status with colleagues and the world.

I had interviewed a few Nobel prizewinners during my science writing career. I grew up in a family of scientists. My grandfather was the Harvard astronomer Harlow Shapley, famous for his discovery that our solar system is not in the center of the galaxy. Most of Harlow’s extended family went into science.

So we were overjoyed to learn that one of Harlow’s sons, my uncle Lloyd S. Shapley, a well-known game theorist, was the co-winner of the 2012 Nobel Memorial prize in Economic Science.1 I was honored that uncle Lloyd included me in the accompanying group each winner is allowed. So – I came to Stockholm!

I’m back to report that Nobel prize week is as grand and magical as reputed. Winners and guests stay at the Grand Hotel, Stockholm's finest. It is luxurious yet remains much as century ago: lobby ceilings so high you can barely see them, ornate plaster work, and wide staircases you’re meant to parade on.


The Grand Hotel's entrance was constantly alive with the nine Nobel winners, their families and guests coming and going. Paparazzi were held outside behind a rope line. The winners’ signatures are prized; I heard that one persistent fan has obtained the signatures of every prizewinner for the paRobert Lefkowitz, chemistry co-winner, and Lynn Lefkowitz in the Grand Hotel 36 years!

Robert Lefkowitz, chemistry co-winner, and Lynn Lefkowitz in the Grand Hotel lobby.

The Nobel Foundation provides each winner a car and driver to move them through snowy streets to university lectures, receptions, banquets, the tailor shop or wherever.

Stockholmers see sleek black cars gliding past. On each side the cars have huge images of the gold Nobel medal.  Swedes are proud of their cars; among the videos at nobelprize (dot) org is one on how the cars are prepped for prize week. 

If you wondering why Nobel prizewinning high-achievers drive off to a tailor’s shop, it’s because the dress code for the main events require all men to wear formal wear called “white tie. “

What’s “white tie”? Think of Fred Astaire’s white vest, white bowtie, tailcoat. This was a gentleman’s evening uniform for at least a century before Astaire. it requires special pants and suspenders so the gent can mount his horse, hop into a carriage, or dance.

Nobel prizewinners may break china intellectually in their work. That’s what got them here. But for prize week they must keep to protocol.

Each winner, or “Laureate,” is assigned a Swedish official to help with where to be, when, to accompany them and to help out.  Our group of Shapleys adored Lloyd’s assistant Rebecca Soderberg. In real life Rebecca is a Swedish arms control official. But for this week she steered him and others of us through the ropes – often literally. Lloyd’s driver Nils Lindell was another great ambassador for Sweden and the Nobel Foundation.

But the Foundation does more than ease its foreign guests into unfamiliar rituals and clothes. It and the award committees weave the intellectual content of the prizewinning work in front of live audiences and the public. Key events try to publicize: What is this work? How does it benefit humanity?

Alvin E. Roth, economics co-winner, giving Nobel Lecture, Aula Magna hall. Photo: Nobel Media

Each winner gives a Nobel Lecture about their winning work, with guest colleagues and Nobel award committees on hand. Lectures are open to the public and broadcast live on TV. The Foundation interviews each winner informally in a video interview. At the award ceremony and banquet there are speeches describing the work: brief, beautifully phrased, and sometimes witty.Alvin E. Roth, economics co-winner, giving Nobel Lecture, Aula Magna hall. Photo: Nobel Media(The Nobel Lecture by Shapley's co-winner in economics, Alvin E Roth of Stanford, will tell you, among other things, how today kidney donors and recipients are matched:how Shapley’s theory and Roth’s applications are saving lives through math.)


Far and away the key moment was the King’s award ceremony on Dec 10. Proceedings began at four thirty. It was dusk but seemed like night, since we had assembled in our white ties and evening gowns at the Concert Hall. The hall, which seats 1,700, was packed.

Onstage came the royal family, each to a gilt-edged throne-like chair.  The Swedish royal anthem was sung. The orchestra played Mozart's March in D major as the nine Laureates filed in – in spanking white shirts, white vests, white ties - the whole nine yards, as it were. Their faces looked not nervous – mostly.

Sweden’s Queen Sofia and two princesses wore sparkling tiaras and really big jewels. King Carl VI Gustav, the two princes and some of the other men wore reams of medals, at the neck below their white bowties and on blue sashes. Crown Princess Victoria was splendid in a sparkling emerald gown, with jewels on her skirt! Every man at the award ceremony – and every boy - wore a complete white tie outfit.

The Swedish royal family at the prize ceremony. Photo: Nobel Media

The official who headed each prize award made a brief speech about the work. By turns each winner was asked to step forward “to receive your Nobel Prize from the hands of His Majesty the King.”

We in the rows of red seats watched nearly breathless as each winner was called in the order Alfred Nobel listed the prizes in his will.

As each winner received the medal, he thereby joined a tiny elect - royalty. Like royalty each will now shine with presumed brilliance for life.Lloyd S.

Shapley and fellow 2012 prize winners. Photo: Nobel Media

Swedish TV also covered live the royal banquet which followed - a small affair for 1,300 in a cavernous, brick-walled hall of the Stockholm City Hall complex. Entering, I saw the press kept in the entrance area, so not to mar the pageantry of the royal procession down the grand staircase, the trumpet calls, the King’s toast.  As at the ceremony, we guests were not supposed to take photos nor leave our seats.

Between courses, music drew our gaze to the dark space above the candlelit tables.  White-clothed circus performers appeared lit by beams of purple spotlights. Their acts were “divertissements” – entertainments for the king between courses. The acrobats rode unicycles down the huge staircase. High in the dark walls, they popped out of openings we hadn’t noticed. They dangled from trapezes 40 feet above our heads.

Cirkus Cirkor at the banquet following the ceremony. Photo: Nobel Media

After all this and a brief speech about each prize, we diners moved by the hundreds up the grand staircase, to be surprised – flabbergasted – to enter a 100-foot hall with walls of gold mosaics called the “Golden Hall.” A few dozen musicians played a Big Band sound for dancing.

Before telling my biggest surprise of Nobel Week, here are brief thoughts on What It All Means Or Doesn’t.


An ordinary person could feel dazzled – or dazed – by this time-trip into the ceremonial world of 1901 when the first prizes were given. Pictures of early Nobel award ceremonies give the impression little has changed.

A person could also wonder. Now, 111 years after the first Nobel prizes were given, are they doing the job Alfred Nobel wanted?

(I won’t address the Peace prize, as Alfred Nobel’s goals for this one are their own story. 2 I won’t discuss the Literature prize, except to say that Nobel was a poet; he continually read classic works. He believed great literature fostered the moral “idealism” humanity needed to progress.)

For sure, Alfred Nobel believed humanity progressed through science. So he willed that three of the prizes should be for: “physics,” “chemistry,” and “physiology or medicine” to individuals “who in the previous year…conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.” Another prize in “economic sciences” was added thanks to a leading Swedish bank in 1969,3 so there are now four prizes in the sciences. The rules say that no more than three people may share any one prize.

Each of the four science prizes in 2012 was shared by two winners, for eight winners across most of modern science. To date 482 individuals have won Nobel prizes in those four fields.

Scientific work is done on a vastly larger scale than it was a few decades ago, let alone in 1901. Research is mostly by teams, which are huge and growing. Last year the papers announcing the discovery of the possible Higgs boson had thousands of coauthors. To whom should the Nobel folks give the physics prize, besides Peter Higgs?

The issue becomes fairness when the number of prizewinners stays teensy while the pool of strivers explodes. Even counting the other prizes established since,4 the number of the elect is small. Here are two graphics showing the scale of change.

Growth in scholarly scientific journals. M. Mabe, Serials, Vol. 16, No. 2, 2003.

At left is the estimated number of scientific journals from 1665 through 2001. The growth is not straight-line but on a log scale, so the estimated 1,000 journals in 1900 explode by 2001 to 14,694 when counted with the same measure. The author, Michael Mabe, counts 25,400 such journals as of 2009.

Nature: Scientific papers published in 2012 by country.

The second graphic appeared in Nature December 19, 2012.6 It is Thomson Reuters’ count of scientific papers published in 2012 by country and percentage growth over the prior year. The light blue boxes show highly cited papers. (The US is dominant in quantity and quality with Europe and Japan following.) The explosive growth of scientific publication in China, India and other Asian nations, in just one year, begs the question of how the Nobels and Nobel-esque family of prizes can keep up.  

I imagine that today Alfred Nobel might define the science prizes differently. He might “will” a greater number - twenty?


Alas my fantasy of re-jiggering the science prizes is only that. In reality after Nobel’s death in 1895 the prizes took six years to get going.

Nobel’s young assistant Ragnar Sohlman - who was surprised to be named an executor of a will Sohlman had not seen – was the hero. Sohlman ingeniously overcame huge legal and political obstacles. In 1901 the first prizes were presented by Oscar II the Swedish King who had first opposed them.7

Though the legal and financial complex of awarding institutions has brilliantly sustained the prizes,8 they would seem hard or impossible to alter now.


Two surprises of Nobel week i imagine might please Alfred Nobel, if he had strolled through the Grand Hotel and tagged along to the week's events.

One was the companionship within and among fields of research. Each winner’s guests were mostly colleagues. Thus, more than a hundred guests from a range of institutions and specialities had days of old-fashioned conversation without rushing off to committee meetings, teaching or lab work.

For a week they enjoyed an earlier form of intellectual life – a luxury apart from the Grand Hotel itself. 

I saw guests huddled on the breakfast veranda which was sunny in the late morning. Some of the great minds could be found at night, in the hotel’s famous Calibri bar, looking out at the white-lit boats, the black water and the lit windows opposite. On van rides to events, I overheard chat about quantum mechanics, receptor cells, statistics and other math. All the winners and their colleagues will remember the ideas sparked here.

I was surprised by the numbers of young people. And kids! Alfred Nobel was a solitary, melancholy man with no wife or child. Called by Victor Hugo “an international vagabond,” Nobel had several homes and businesses in Russia and Europe; he never settled anywhere for long.9

But Nobel knew in his gut the value of youth. Alfred and his brothers worked in their father’s ventures, often salvaging papa's schemes. (Interestingly, father and son were awarded a gold medal in 1868 for the invention of dynamite; the father thus shared the credit though Alfred had done the work.)

Usher and date on the dance floor. Photo: Deborah Shapley

Swedish college students are ushers for Nobel Week. At the big events, there were dozens of these young people, each in a white cap and a pair of blue and yellow sashes. They wore this garb over street clothes or over their white ties or gowns, enlivening the formal events and the dance floor.

As for kids, physics co-winner Serge Haroche brought two young girls who chatted away in French. Our group included Lloyd Shapley’s two 14-year old grandsons, who had a great time, wide-eyed. At the award ceremony I saw a little fellow with a pacifier, who had been outfitted in a pint-sized white tie. 

We won’t forget Nobel week. Nor will the young people there.

They remind us that this prize of prizes, though bound by the past, is still about the future.

by Deborah Shapley


1 The 2012 winners and what they won for are at

2 The Nobel Peace Prize is given out on behalf of Norwegian Parliament as instructed in Nobel’s will. It is also given Dec 10; this year it was given to the European Union.

 3 Formally the Sveriges  Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel.

4 Selected prizes: Crawfoord Prize, Fields Medal, Gruber Prize, Japan Prize, Kavli Prize, 
Kyoto Prize, Millennium Technology Prize, The Shaw Prize.

5 Mabe, Michael,"The growth and number of journals"  in Serial, Vol. 16. No. 2 July 1, 2003.The above is no. 7 in the Executive Summary. See
Mabe is  CEO of International Association of STM Publishers. For earlier period see Fig. 1 in  Derek de Solla Price, Little Science, Big Science (1963) reprinted in Atlas of Science, MIT Press (2010).  I am grateful to David Pendlebury of Thomson Reuters' Web of Science project for clarifying journal counts.

Nature, December 19, 2012, Vol.492, No.7429.

7 Sohlman, Ragnar  The Legacy of Alfred Nobel: The Story Behind the Nobel Prizes (orig. 1950) The Bodley Head Ltd for the Nobel Foundation, (1983).

8 Nobel prize principal and amounts history, see . A table of Nobel prize capital since 1901 with corresponding US dollar amounts is at

9 Alfred Nobel biographical sources: Fant, Kenne, Alfred Nobel: A Biography (1986); Halasz, Nicholas Nobel: A biography of Alfred Nobel (1959); Marcou, Giorgio  Alfred Nobel: His Life and Work (2003); Halasz, Nicholas Nobel: A biography of Alfred Nobel (1959).

View of Stockholm from Grand Hotel, about 8 am. Photo: Deborah Shapley