The Nobel Prize Gala in Stockholm’s City Hall on Saturday evening was the single most magnificently-orchestrated, elegant event I have attended. Descending the gently angled, marble staircase on the arm of an escort, my breath caught at the warmly lit, brick-lined expanse of the hall which had ceilings that seemed to reach to the heavens. Between different courses of food, graceful ballerinas danced on pointe along our tables and masterful violinists pierced the air. The event itself was the perfect marriage of great science rewarded, and pure glamour.
But this fairy-tale scene was not the climax of the festivities — the most moving and climactic moments occurred during the awards ceremony when the laureates were presented their medals by the King.
Seated on the stage in front of members of the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences, and across from the Swedish King and royal family, the Nobel laureates (which included five Americans) reflected the pride of a lifetime’s arduous experimentation and hard work. Whether it was the twinkle in Professor Saul Perlmutter’s eye every time his child made eye contact with him, or the way Professor Brian Schmidt lovingly winked at his wife, there was pure joy in the air.
Two moments in particular lit up the crowd:
Professor Ralph M. Steinman was part of the team of Professor Bruce A. Beutler and Professor Jules A. Hoffman, who received the Nobel Prize for physiology. Sadly, three days before receiving the news, Professor Steinman passed away to pancreatic cancer. Nonetheless, the Nobel Committee decided to award him the prize.
Dressed in black, his wife sat pensively throughout the ceremony and accepted the award on behalf of her husband. After three ceremonial bows—one to the royal family, one to the academy and one to the audience—Mrs. Steinman spontaneously kissed her palm and threw her arms into the air, looking up passionately at the sky and delivering a bittersweet gesture in celebration with her husband.
The second moment that defined the evening was the presence of the famed Swedish poet and Nobel Prize winner in literature, Tomas Tranströmer. Mr. Tranströmer is a hauntingly evocative poet, whose metaphors capture the minds of Swedes and literature aficionados around the world for decades. He suffered a stroke in 1990 that left him unable to speak and partially paralyzed. But he continued to write. Upon receiving the prize, Mr. Tranströmer was wheeled to the center of the stage to thunderous applause. Although his facial movements are restricted, he began to glow and the strength of his smile radiated throughout the orchestra hall. At one point he shifted himself with such poise in order to sit up just a little straighter and a little prouder in his wheelchair in order to soak in the moment. A truly noble Nobel moment!
The fortitude and grace of both Mrs. Steinman and Mr. Tranströmer personify the spirit that Alfred Nobel set out to establish through his legacy. A final thread woven amongst the fabric of these special moments was an enduring and powerful emphasis on the young generation to continue scientific exploration. We are in a global period where the environment is suffering and climate change issues can be a sore and contentious topic. But an enormous source of optimism for me was the excitement and proactive engagement among both the Swedish youth, and youth from around the world, who were present at the ceremonies.
Everywhere I went, young high school and university students described how inspired they were by the cutting-edge leadership on promoting new sources of sustainable energy of U.S. Energy Secretary, and 1997 Nobel laureate in physics, Steven Chu who was visiting to help celebrate the Nobel Prizes of professors Perlmutter and Shechtman, who are associated with U.S. Department of Energy national laboratories. These students told me how excited they were to be studying science. I am confident that these young people will lead our world into a new century of preservation, conservation and sustainable development.