Out of the Lab, Into the Limelight
Try to think of all the scientists you can name. My guess is that you can name a lot more actors. I know I can.
The discoveries that have transformed the world were made in private, through hours of work that were neither glamorous nor exciting. It’s no surprise that we tend to remember important scientific breakthroughs, but forget those who gave years of their lives to make them.
But for one week per year in December, the greatest living scientific minds are invited out of anonymity to Stockholm, Sweden for a taste of celebrity. Crowds shout their names, asking for selfies and autographs. Cameras click as reporters clamor to ask their questions in press conferences. Evenings are filled with banquets and concerts. This celebration catapults researchers into the public eye, crowning them as bona fide scientific royalty: Nobel laureates. It is fitting then, that their host for the week’s festivities is a royal himself, King Carl XVI of Sweden.
Merchant of Death
Alfred Nobel was shocked to learn that he had died.
In 1888, he opened the newspaper to a headline declaring that “The merchant of death has died”. It was a mistake, of course. Nobel’s brother had died, not him. But the shock of reading his own obituary is what many speculate pushed him to consider his legacy. While the chemist, engineer, and businessman had always been philanthropic, the obituary focused on the destruction caused by the explosives, including dynamite, that he invented. It’s unlikely that this is how Nobel, a pacifist, would have wanted to be remembered.
When Nobel actually died in 1896, his loved ones were equally shocked to learn that he had decided to allocate the vast majority of his wealth to establishing “a fund, the interest on which is to be distributed annually as prizes to those who, during the preceding year, have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind.” The Nobel Prize was born.
The prize is now awarded each year in the categories of Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Peace, Literature, and Economics. Up to three living recipients can share the prize in each category, receiving about nine million dollars in prize money, and more prestige than you can imagine. The list of Nobel laureates includes the who’s who of STEM, likely the ones that you can name off the top of your head: Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, Watson and Crick (Rosalind Franklin had sadly already passed away), Alexander Fleming, Santiago Ramón y Cajal, Ivan Pavlov, Ernest Rutherford, Barbara McClintock, Rita Levi-Montalcini, and many, many more.
The Royal Treatment
King Carl has been in power since 1973, making him the longest reigning monarch in the history of Sweden. In reality though, he has very little power, since a 1974 law has restricted him to performing only ceremonial duties. One of those duties is being the guest of honor during the Nobel ceremonies. That means all the winners receive their prize from him, are invited to a banquet at his palace on their last night in Sweden.
However, the royal family is not actually involved in selecting the winners. That honor belongs to the Royal Swedish Academy of Scientists (physics, chemistry, and economics), the Swedish Academy (literature), the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institute (medicine), or the Norwegian Nobel Committee (peace) which are not affiliated with the royal family currently or historically. All of the panels are composed of both Swedish and foreign scientists, and the drama and politics behind selecting a winner stay behind closed doors. Unfortunately for King Carl, the same can’t be said for the drama that unfolds in his family.
Carl has grown in popularity through the years, but was a playboy in his youth. Scandals involving affairs and stripclubs did no favors for his reputation. His wife, Queen Silvia, also faced criticism for media reports about her father’s connection to the Nazis.
But the royal family has also proved itself to be very adaptable and forward-thinking. The Swedish government made it possible for a firstborn daughter to become heir to the throne 30 years before England. The family tends to break expectations in their love lives as well. Queen Silvia was a flight attendant when she met her husband, making her the first Swedish queen to have had a career. Their daughter Victoria, a Yale educated woman open about her struggles with mental health, married her personal trainer. And their son, Prince Carl Philip, married Sophia Hellqvist, a former reality star and model and current fashion icon. Even just this month, King Carl made news earlier this month when he stripped five of his grandkids of royal titles, simultaneously saving the government money and allowing them to lead more “normal” lives. Basically, anything William and Harry did, Carl and company did first.
It may seem silly to trot out a man with an antiquated title to present an award for the most modern of findings, but this is fitting for a prize instituted by a man who was full of contradiction. Alfred Nobel’s pacifism and weapons. King Carl’s scandal and dignity. The scientists’ anonymity and celebrity. The ceremony’s tradition and innovation. This is the legacy of the Nobel Prize.
So for a moment in time, scientists trade data for diamonds, lab coats for tuxedos, and colleagues for kings. And when it’s all over, they return to their labs and continue working for the betterment of us all.
Finn, N. (2020, July 14). A Complete Guide to the Swedish Royal Family: Scandals, Romance, Heartbreak, Adorable Kids. Retrieved from https://www.eonline.com/news/884654/bored-of-the-brits-a-guide-to-the-stunning-swedish-royal-family-scandals-romance-heartbreak-ridiculously-adorable-kids
Sweden.se. (2020, July 20). The Nobel Prize. Retrieved from https://sweden.se/society/the-nobel-prize-awarding-great-minds/
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2019, December 06). Alfred Nobel. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Alfred-Nobel
The official website of the Nobel Prize. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.nobelprize.org/
4 thoughts on “The Swede Life”
I am truly enjoying your posts. Your writing styles and interesting ideas presented make for an excellent read. I’ve learned tidbits I’d never known before. Thank you!!