Thursday, May 28, 2015

Prize Possession


     The Sun-Times ran a story Wednesday —about physicist and former Fermi head Leon Lederman selling his Nobel Prize — that brought to mind one of my favorite stories I ever wrote, not so much for its execution, but for the idea sparking it. It was 1988, and the Small family had just started a new magazine called Chicago Times, and I wanted to impress them with my sense of quirk.  My first piece is below, on Nobel laureates, where they put their Nobel prizes when they get them home, and do they show them off to dinner guests. The original lede on this story was a non-sequitur —"Most people know that Albert Nobel invented dynamite, but few realize that his father invented plywood"—that appealed to me because I felt it set the proper surreal tone of focusing on a mundane aspect of the Nobel Prize (faithful reader Gry Haukland contributes this sublime item from Scientific American about trying to get your Nobel through airport security). But the editor rejected my beginning, so the story was printed the way it appears below, in September 1988, a few months before Lederman won his Nobel Prize in physics. Bidding for the medal starts at $325,000. As for my story, well, I hope it's worth the time it takes to read.


     On December 10, a new group of academics will be paraded, blinking, into the glare of global publicity in Stockholm, Sweden. There they will receive what may be the world's most prestigious award, the Nobel Prize, along with a payment of approximately $225,000.
     These laureates will be questioned about the discoveries and life work that led to their awards. But, if this year is like others, the really pertinent questions about the Nobel will go unasked. Where do the winners put the prizes when they get them home? And what do they do with the money?
     Luckily, the University of Chicago has produced fifty-five Nobel laureates, more than any other institution in the world. Consequently, answers are close at hand.
      "It's a lovely paperweight," George Stigler says of the beribboned two-inch-across, one-eighth-inch-thick solid gold medallion he received in 1982 for his work on economics and public information. "It's in my desk and I bring it out once in a while to amuse people."
     Stigler says he knows of one laureate who carries his Nobel Prize around, presenting the stamped profile of the inventor of dynamite at hotels, along with demands for discounts.
     Other laureates are more hesitant about displaying their prizes out of a combination of fear and modesty. 
     "The prize is usually in a safe-deposit box," says Jim Cronin, who, with Val Fitch, won it in 1980 for his work on subatomic particles called K-mesons. Cronin does have a facsimile prize close at hand, however.
     "What the foundation does, for a minimum charge, is give you a replica, a fake," he says. "It's sitting in the study with all the other memorabilia that I'm ashamed to show to anybody I respect. Maybe I'd like to, but I'm too embarrassed. But the children like to see it."
     Theodore W. Schultz, who received the prize in 1979 along with W. Arthur Lewis for pioneering work on economic transformation of traditional agricultural societies, found the idea of making a replica distasteful. He keeps his prize locked away in a special safe the Defense Department gave him to store classified documents. "I've not displayed it—once in a while my children may look at it, and that's about it," he says.
     As an economist, Schultz chides himself for holding on to the prize, which he calls "a gravestone that draws no interest. I could have sold it and drawn interest on it." But the man who was insightful enough to develop the idea of the importance of human capital recognizes that, in the grand scope of his personal finances, the interest off a Nobel Prize will not make or break him. "my marginal interest would have been quite low compared to knowing it's just there."     
     Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, the great astrophysicist who theorized the existence of black holes when he was nineteen and who won the prize in 1983, never thought about selling his Nobel. "What can one do?" he asks in a faint, philosophical tone. "You can melt it down for gold, or you can put it in a bank. I don't go to the extreme." Chandrasekhar did have a reproduction made, but then gave it away to his brothers in India.
     The "minimum charge" Cronin mentioned for the replica—other laureates estimated it was between $25 and $40—points out another interesting aspect to the award. "You'd be amazed," Cronin laughs. "They give you all this money, pay for your transportation and hotel, but if you want photographs—and they photograph the ceremony like crazy—they charge you $10 apiece."
     Cronin also dispels the myth that laureates use the prize money to "further their work." He says he used some of the money to put plumbing and a new porch on his cabin in Wisconsin. Stigler built a cabin in Canada. Schultz pointed out that travel expense to the ten days of festivities in Stockholm for twenty-nine family members "took a good hunk out of the prize." 
     And finally, for all the scientists working away in obscurity, dreaming of the day they will wow the academy in Stockholm with the scientific brilliance of their acceptance speech, Cronin offers a disillusioning revelation.
     "I put a lot of work into my speech," he says. "This was a social occasion, and my speech was a scientific paper—no jokes. It went over like a lead balloon." 
     

23 comments:

  1. So Prof. James Cronin adorned his cabin with bird feathers? That's another structure to add to the long list of architectural oddities to be found in Wisconsin.

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    1. Bernie, What do you mean with bird feathers?

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    2. Ha, when the column was first published, it had plumbing spelled as pluming.

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  2. We need more science coverage in the media, for a variety of reasons. I absolutely loved those "Rock Stars of Science" busstop ads (even if they did include the terrible Dr. Oz in one of them).

    PS: my second favorite inventor of all time languishes in obscurity, even with an African-American history month that conceivably introduces him to more people. Lewis Latimer, who made affordable electricity a reality (and was a true renaissaince man to boot).

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    1. Oh goodie about the A-A scientist. And here I thought you were a Republican.

      Don't forget olden days, Benjamin Banneker, said the History teacher.

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    2. I don't quite get the reference to being Republican.

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    3. I was teasing ANA that he often sounds like a Repub. but he prob can't be since he's complimenting an A-A scientist.(not a usual repub thing)

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    4. Not everybody in a group can be so easily lumped together, you know. Racism is not the only kind of stereotyping. And no, I'm not a Republican, but some of my best friends are.

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    5. Lighten up, Coey. Save your holier than thou preaching for someone with a name on the handle. Tired of your reprimands or go open your own perfect blog.

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    6. Don't be so prissy and learn when someone is teasing. The post wasn't even directed at you.

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    7. Hmm, kind of the chance you take on an open forum. However, if you would prefer that I not remark on your posts, I will certainly do not do so if you identify them in some way.

      What you call prissy, I call civil.

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    8. Please do remark, I like some of your comments but not if you can't tell when one isn't being serious. Being civil doesn't include preaching or correcting.

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    9. I'm not 12 and you aren't a grade school teacher.

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    10. Now, don't make me defend school teachers. Especially since so many of mine were nuns.

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    11. Yes, I had some nasty nuns in grammar school.

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    12. I'll just put it out there, Anonymous (and I don't know if I'm addressing one or more of you--one of the frustrations of the "Anonymous" moniker), that it bothers me when someone says or implies that if someone is X (insert gender, religion, ethnic group, political leaning, etc.), then s/he must also be/think/do Y. I just feel that putting people into boxes, rather than clarifying matters, does us all a disservice. Maybe I just have to let that go here.

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    13. Well you are just so perfect and wonderful, Coey. Who can measure up to that? And no one put people in boxes-again you are taking some statements too seriously.

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    14. OK, I will try not to take you seriously. I think, with some practice, I can do that.

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    15. Well it depends on the post. Goodnight now. Unless you have to have the last word, wink.

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  3. I'd like to read about his father who invented the knife to shave sheets of wood off trees to make plywood.

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  4. Tesla was another good early day scientist.

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    1. You're right about Nikola Tesla, there should be a Nobel Prize category for inventors. The history of electricity exhibit, at the Smithsonian, is a real joke. It starts with, Edison this Edison that, skipping the best part, Edison's execution of an elephant with AC power. Then skips Tesla, and all of a sudden Westinghouse power plants are generating 3-wire delta phase A/C power, as it exists today. Al Gore should have received a Nobel Prize for inventing the Internet.

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  5. Edison still did some great things, even if he's not pc these days. Loved visiting his lab in Greenfield Village , MI as well. PBS had a good documentary on him. There are some good book bios on him too.

    Lol, about Gore.

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