Thursday, May 28, 2015
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."