Thursday, December 11, 2014

Nobel Prize Ceremony 2014

Tuesday night I pulled my suit out of the closet. Tuesday night I also noticed that my suit pants were covered in dust and dirt. Last time I wore my suit I decided it would be a good idea to run across the dance floor and slide feet-first between my cousin’s legs as he danced. Turns out it WAS a good idea. Unfortunately, it left me carefully dusting off my pants before Wednesday, when I would be attending the Nobel Prize ceremony.

Nobel Selfie #1. Note the confused stare
as if new technology frightens him.
After a careful dusting, my pants looked good as new. Or at least, good enough that no one would notice. And really, when you’re going to the Nobel ceremony, good enough is good enough. If you’re a guy at least. The prince’s fiancée is apparently taking flak for her dress. I’m guessing hers was at least clean.

Anyway, I went to the Nobel Prize ceremony yesterday. So that’s a thing that happened. Turns out that being an academic on fancy grants sometimes has perks.

We showed up at around 5pm. The ceremony was set to start at 5:30pm. We picked a door and waited in line for a bit. Apparently if you’re important enough to have two bodyguards with you, you’re also important enough to not wait in line and to not carry your own umbrella. Although, you’re not important enough for me to recognize who you are. So I moved to a different line, showed my ticket, scanned my ID, and bam. There I was. Rubbing elbows with fancy famous people.

That’s not true. The fancy famous part. I didn’t recognize a single famous person. In fact, not until I was seated and watched as the royal family walked in did I recognize anyone. Me and the Bernadottes, we go way back.

It became clear though who the students were, who the Nobel laureates were, and who would be attending the dinner afterwards. Dinner requires a white tie and tails. The ceremony did not. And medals are meant to be worn at events like this. Including your Nobel awards. I was just wishing I had planned ahead and brought along my third place medal from the Greeley Tri-Star Skills Dribble, Pass & Shoot Competition back in elementary school. Alas. My torso was unadorned by medals. This time.

A not-yet-filled stage waiting for smart people. And royalty.
We made our way to our seats at the top of the concert house; we sat and waited for the ceremony to begin. I had no idea what to expect. I had a program in front of me, but come on, there’s a lot that goes unsaid in those programs. When do we clap? When do we stand? When do we rush the stage like the joker at the ceremony in Oslo? You know, the usual. Luckily, the king took care of all that for us. When in doubt, do what the king does. A tried and true method for centuries.

We waited patiently as everyone took their seats. There was a buzz. The nervous talking and excitement that comes with experiencing something extreme, abnormal, different. There was a host of students in the row in front of me. Based on their dress, they looked to have been the lucky ones to score tickets to the dinner. The German student in front of me was very interested in the Japanese student to his left. Because I am awkward, I chose to eavesdrop instead of actually talk to the people sitting next to me. The conversation in front of me turned to folk costumes, because folk costumes are considered, along with tuxedos, to be appropriate dress for events like these. Our German friend was less interested in folk dress than he was in the low cut dress of the woman to his left. Eyes up, buddy, eyes up.

And then the lights dimmed and silence fell and the royal family entered. I think we stood. I don’t remember. I think there was music. But I don’t remember. I assume we did, because it seems like the kind of thing that would be expected of folks in the presence of royalty. It was all so strange. Kings and queens and princes and princesses. Their dresses and jewelry dazzled. Seriously. Dazzled. And glittered. And caught the light and threw it all the way up to the second-to-last row of the concert house. The royals took their seats. Backs straight, hands gently arranged in their laps, posture that would make my pudgy core cringe after a moment. And then the audience was seated. At least I think we actually sat down. I mean, I know I was sitting at this point. Of course, the audience seemed a bit less straight-backed, and there were at least twenty seats empty throughout the evening. But we were there. Then the speeches began.

We were welcomed to the event. We were reminded of the troubling times we live in. Of “strong social and environmental challenges, with anti-intellectual and xenophobic tendencies and with a military build-up coupled with ruthless nationalistic actions and obvious threats to peace.” (You can watch the whole thing here.) But the prizes awarded were in honor of Nobel’s vision—to honor the discoveries and inventions and literature that benefit people as a whole. We were reminded that education and research matters. That stories matter. That individuals matter. That actions matter. We were reminded of all of this as ten men and one woman sat on the stage waiting to be awarded for their work as professors and doctors and writers. It was a testament to education and the sciences and the humanities.

Patrick Modiano accepting his prize from a descendent
of a French Marshal named Jean-Baptiste. Seems fitting.
The speeches continued, each prize being singled out for their importance to society. The prize for physics was awarded first. It was a speech that opened with fairy tales and Lord of the Rings to explain the importance of the discovery. Turns out, the humanities are good for explaining the world around us. In fact, the humanities were well represented. Aside from the literature prize, we were treated to the humanities once more when Do You Know Pippi Longstocking? and Mio, My Son, were mentioned in the speech about economics (not an actual Nobel prize, by the way). Because I’m not a scientist, I quite appreciated the way in which the sciences were presented to us—through stories and literature.

Professor Anne L'Huillier, Member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, asked the award winners to stand, and the first, Professor Isamu Akasaki (aged 85 in case you were wondering), made his way to the center of the stage. He met the king there, who placed the award in front of the professor, patted it, shook Professor Akasaki’s hand, and then bowed slightly to him. He backed away and then began to clap. So everyone else began to clap. The professor bowed, he turned and bowed to the Nobel committee, the clapping continued. And then he turned to the crowd and bowed once more. The clapping, having continued evenly since he had received his award became even louder. Reaching a sort of crescendo that wouldn’t be met again for the remainder of the evening. It was the only time this happened. It was the only time this happened because the king clapped too early. I know, he’s the king, but for the other ten laureates, he did not begin clapping until the award winners turned to the crowd and bowed.

The rest of the evening was a mix of English, Swedish, French, and German. Luckily, they provided us all with a translation of the speeches into English. I only clapped at the wrong time once. Luckily, I was not alone. Two old men on stage clapped at the wrong time too. Awkwardly looking at each other as they slowed their clap to a clasp as if they were just so darn pleased with the award. Then they looked at each other and shook their heads. They’d been caught.

At least they hadn’t been caught sleeping. Because it’s hot in there. Sweaty hot. And that heat and a whole lot of speeches can make you a bit sleepy. I’m not saying I fell asleep during the ceremony, I’m just saying that I wouldn’t judge anyone who did.

This account may sound dismissive. It shouldn’t. Or maybe it should. But it isn’t. This was kind of a surreal experience. A once-in-a-lifetime surreal experience. Surreal, because when it comes down to it, it’s an awards ceremony. Surreal because there was a king who everyone mimicked. He stood, we stood. He clapped, we clapped. He left, we left. Surreal because I was watching as one of the most prestigious awards in the sciences and literature was handed out as I sat in my dirty suit as if I belonged. It was all surreal. And something I won’t forget.

Welcome to Sweden. And tl;dr: Nobel Prize ceremonies are interesting and exotic to Americans.


  1. "It's good to the king" (Mel Brooks, in character), "and you're not" (Chevy Chase, under different circumstances).

    Thanks for the glimpse into this exotic world.

    1. It must be strange to live in a bubble where it is, in fact, good to be king.

  2. I had written a comment saying how surprised I was to see you reveal yourself in a picture in this blog. The comment was better than this simple single note, but it disappeared after I logged in to post it. So now, after having seen your face, I just want to say: "Hej, hur mår du?!" :)

    1. Keeping people on their toes!

      Bra! Själv?

    2. Mycket bra, tack! And... that's about everything I can say (or write) in Swedish without embarrassing myself (well, hope I haven't... :P )

  3. Wow, what an incredible experience! Thanks for writing about it. So cool.