A month from now, if a man named Staffan Normack calls you from Sweden then congratulations, you've probably just won the Nobel Prize. Professor Normack, the permanent secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, cold calls the Nobel laureates in chemistry, physics and economics during the second week of October. "We tell them this is a very important call. A. Very. Important. Call. From Stockholm." he told Tom Whipple of The Economist's Intelligent Life magazine in an interview out today.
And even though that call, the prestige of the award, and the £800,000 in prize money are life changing, the brilliant laureates react to winning the prize the way you'd expect. Some are surprised, some were expecting it, and some people think it's a joke. John Gurdon, who won for physiology/medicine last year for research he'd done 50 years earlier, said he thought "someone was pulling his leg." After winning the chemistry prize last year, Brian Kobilka shared a similar sentiment with Slate. "I thought it was some friends, initially. But I don't have friends that have a really good Swedish accent, so then I started believing it," he said.
One thing Nobel laureates, especially in the sciences, seem to agree on is that the prize changes the winner, personally and professionally. When Whipple interviewed James Watson (of Watson and Crick fame) he said that the death of Francis Crick left him to be the smartest person he knows. "It is arrogant, but somehow charming," Whipple wrote. "Without the Nobel, it would be just plain arrogant. Without the Nobel, I suspect he wouldn’t have said it."
In a bit of humble bragging of his own, laureate Bill Phillips (physics, 1997) said during a video interview that one of the big changes post-prize was trying to keep up with all the speaking requests he receives. Frank Wilczek (physics, 2004) found a different downside to the award. He told The Guardian that "the main downsides are temptations, that can be resisted – specifically the temptation to rest on your laurels, and the dual temptation to pontificate on grandiose questions."
Not that we're going to start feeling sorry for Nobel laureates any time soon, but it's nice to know that beside the fame, respect, prestige and money, it's not all wonderful.
(Photo: Brian Kobilka speaks to reporters after winning the Nobel Prize, via AP.)