Nobel notebook: Dancing queens and rule breakers
The sight of Nobel laureates and the great and good of Sweden dancing to big-band renditions of “The Theme from Rocky” or the music of Earth, Wind and Fire has to be among the more surreal experiences I’ve had in Stockholm. Decked out in evening wear, with their medals and sashes, they twirled, shimmied and occasionally bumped-and-grinded in the ballroom above the banquet hall, where the King of Sweden had recently toasted to the memory of Alfred Nobel.
Welcome to the glittering Nobel banquet, the grand finale of the Nobel Week festivities that celebrate achievements in the arts and sciences.
There was Herta Mueller, the Romanian-born German writer now famous for having stood up to Nicolae Ceausescu’s thugs. She is a small, slight woman with a very serious face. Hardly a surprise since she has had a very serious life. It was a point not lost on those who heard her speech during the banquet as she talked of friends who helped her on her journey and now lay in graves. But she was out there with the best of them, swaying to the music and occasionally revealing a smile.
I spoke to her briefly, to let her know that I had a close friend who had grown up in circumstances like hers, among the German-speaking minority who were second-class citizens in Ceausescu’s Romania. She was gracious and seemed bemused by all the attention she was suddenly receiving.
Mueller has taken full advantage of that attention to highlight the cause that matters to her, human dignity. She alone gave an extended speech to the 1,300 guests, a small break of protocol. The other laureates had brief, often humorous speech-ettes. Mueller described “the path of a child who once tended cows in a valley” all the way to the banquet hall that night.
Dedicating the prize to the memory of people whose lives were destroyed by dictators, she called on the world to fight dictatorships, branding Iran as one. Russia and China, she said, have only “cloaked themselves in civil overcoats”.
Mueller broke protocol in other ways – something she is clearly used to doing. Wearing black, as she has all week, is apparently discouraged for women at the Nobel banquet.
Others stuck more to the script, which calls for brevity. U.S. scientist George Smith, a physics winner, quipped that he has been thanked by so many people, from PhD students empowered by his research to television camera operators whose loads had literally become lighter thanks to imaging technology he invented. He shared the prize with Willard Boyle and Charles Kao. Their work in fibre optics and how to turn light into electronic signals ushered in the Internet age.
Ada Yonath, an Israeli researcher, might be considered the ultimate map maker. Her work led to the first atom-by-atom map of the life-giving ribosome, which makes protein. Cartographer or not, she let the audience know that she’s not so great at finding her way. She used the occasion to thank her driver, Nisse, without whom she said she would have become hopelessly lost in Stockholm.
Then there was Elizabeth Blackburn, an Australian-born American whose discoveries with Jack Szostak and Carol Greider, helped scientists understand how a strange-sounding enzyme prevents chromosomes from fraying. Put another way, we now better understand the process of aging. Blackburn chose not to talk extending our lifespans and picked a different subject: sex. In marvelling at the abundance of nature, she spoke about a tiny pond creature that has not two sexes but seven. “Who knows what’s going on under the water?” she asked.
The whole affair is a study in living large. Among the statistics: 7,000 porcelain pieces, 5,000 glasses, 10,000 silverware items, 11,000 imported flowers from Italy, 30 chefs and 230 servers. The servers march with military precision and everywhere you turn is something that reminds you that this is an evening where no expense is spared.
Then the fairytale is over and the next day it’s time to return the rented outfit, which in Sweden is called a “frack”. There are a handful of firms that make and rent them, including “Steens Herrmode”, which made mine. Lars Steen told me it has been in business since the 1930s when his father, a tailor, realised there was money to be made in the rental business. Despite the depressed economy of that time — or perhaps because of it — Swedes loved dressing up and going to fancy parties. Judging by Nobel Week, it’s pretty clear they still do.