Announcing the Nobel Prize Stories

Michael Kosterlitz (left) receives the Nobel Prize in Physics from King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden at the Stockholm Concert Hall in December 2016. Two months ago, Kosterlitz received an unexpected call while on his way to lunch. Credit: Pi Frisk / © Nobel Media AB 2016

The Nobel Prize in Physics highlights a select group of scientists. But for all the hype and fame that comes with the award, the winners are only human. As a result, they often have wonderful tales to tell about the day their lives changed forever.

Many of the stories from the Nobel Laureates in Physics and their colleagues are recorded in the Oral History Collection compiled by the Center for the History of Physics and the Niels Bohr Library and Archives of the American Institute of Physics. (published by AIP Physics today.) Some focus on how researchers discover they have been awarded the prize. Others describe congratulations and subsequent celebration. The following stories illustrate how Nobel laureates can be, in essence, ordinary people exposed to extraordinary circumstances.


round of applause

In 1999, Gerard Hooft of Utrecht University in the Netherlands was invited by his colleague and friend to give a lecture in Bologna, Italy on gravitational and quantum physics. The show coincided – perhaps not by chance – with the announcement of the Nobel Prize. While presenting his slides on Transparency, Hoft gave what he believes is a very good talk. As he told historian David Zerler last year, when he finished there was a particularly enthusiastic applause.

When my speech was over, I received applause, but the applause was longer and louder than I expected. I believed [to] Myself, “You gave a good speech, but not that good, so why that kind of applause?” As it turned out, the students had left the room, searched the Internet, and found the 1999 Nobel Committee announcement, which they had printed and projected onto the screen for everyone to see, except for me, who had my back to the screen.

They said, “Look at your screen,” and only then did I realize this was going to be a special moment in my life, and that this award would change it. And of course that’s what I did.

For his work explaining the mechanisms behind the electroweak interaction, Hooft was awarded a share of the 1999 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Nobel medal.

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wet wet world

MIT theoretical physicist Frank Wilczek planned to get up early at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on the morning of the announcement of the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics. Unfortunately, as he told Zierler in 2020, he wasn’t ready early enough .

Well, six in the morning would be the public announcement, but I didn’t realize they’d be calling people before that. I think I knew very little about the Nobel Prize at the time. …well, of course I got the call, but I got straight out of the shower. I did not dry out. I was just wet and took this call. and you know, [my wife] Betsy knew all this stuff, of course, and said, “It sounds like someone with a Swedish accent. You should definitely answer that call.” And I did. It was, of course, the Nobel Committee. …

I thought when they told you they would just say, “Congratulations, you’ve won a Nobel Prize. Bye.” But that wasn’t the case at all. Many of my Swedish colleagues wanted to congratulate [me] He gave a few speeches. …and they wanted to give some advice on how to deal with the press. So this went on for about 20 minutes, and I was still wet, and my wife was trying to dry me out. So it was a great experience.

And then when that was over,…I think I put on some clothes, but then…I wanted to call my parents right away, because I knew that meant a lot to them. … They grew up in difficult circumstances and really invested in my success. So I called, but when I called, my dad was angry. He said: Do you know what time it is? what do you want? What are you trying to sell me? Whatever it is, I don’t want it! “

Wilczek was recognized for his theoretical work on quarks, which informed the understanding of the strong nuclear force.

What was that again?

J spent. Michael Kosterlitz spent most of the 1970s investigating phase transitions using topology. Much later, in the fall of 2016, Kosterlitz was on sabbatical leave in Finland from his professor at Brown University. He told Zierler last year that his most memorable moment came on the afternoon of October 5 when he was hungry for lunch. As he navigated through an underground parking lot toward a mall to get sushi and beer, his phone buzzed in his pocket.

I kind of managed to dig up my cell phone and I answered, and there was this Swedish accent that responded: “Blah, blah, blah, Nobel Prize.” And I kind of thought, “Did he actually say I won the Nobel Prize, or what?” I had no idea this business was under consideration anymore. You know, I kind of stopped thinking about it. We did the work in the mid-’70s, let’s say this was 2016, so this was, 35, 40 years later. …

Then, as I said, slowly broke through, what the man had said. And I was kind of trying to struggle to say something, but I was so amazed that nothing came out. So there was silence for 30 seconds. And the only thing I can finally say is “Jesus”. And that was the end of the conversation.

Section fax machine
Joseph Taylor (right) and Robert Dick.
Joseph Taylor (right) and his colleague Robert Dick attend a party at Princeton University’s Physics Building on the afternoon that Taylor’s Nobel Prize was announced. Credit: Sam Treman, Courtesy of AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archive, Physics today Collection

On the morning of October 13, 1993, astrophysicist Joseph Taylor was asleep at his home in Princeton, New Jersey, when his wife woke up with a phone call from Stockholm. The caller – a Swedish reporter and not from the Nobel Committee – proceeded to inform him that he had just received the Nobel Prize in Physics. So many phone calls from reporters and well-wishers followed that Taylor and his wife finally hung up the phone to have breakfast in peace. Taylor has never received an official phone call, he told Zeller in 2020.

I went to the physics department. By then it was already well known there, in part because the Nobel personnel, having failed to contact me by phone, faxed to a machine in the corridor outside the department office. The passage was accessible to anyone, and the graduate students had already found the facsimile and were reading it.”

Taylor shared the prize with Russell Hulse for their discovery of a binary pulsar that enabled indirect detection of gravitational radiation.


“Don’t let the prize go to your head”

Samuel Ting of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was awarded a share of the 1976 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work showing the existence of charm quarks. The experimental physicist missed his party at MIT, because he was at CERN conducting an experiment in cross-storage rings. Find out from the Secretary General of the Nobel Committee over the phone. Then the long-distance congratulations started to come in, he told Zerler in 2020.

Samuel Teng with his daughters at the 1976 Nobel Prize Ceremony.
Samuel Teng with his daughters at the 1976 Nobel Prize Ceremony. Credit: Jan Collsioo/Pressens Bild AB, Courtesy of AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, gift by Eleanor Dahl

The first telegram came from the Nobel laureate Rabih al-Thani. “Well, Sam, from now on, you’ll find financing will be easier,” said Rabee. It’s really the reality. It hasn’t made my life any more difficult, Ting said, mainly because I’m always just working on my experiences.

Three days later, Richard Feynman also sent his regards. According to Ting, the telegram was saying, “Congratulations, Sam, but why give prizes to men who discover things I didn’t expect and understand? Please don’t let the prize go to your head. I dare you to figure out something I can easily understand.”

A call from Air Force One

David Wineland of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Boulder, Colorado, shared the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work measuring and manipulating quantum systems. Zirler told in 2020 that his day at the Nobel Prize began at 4:00 a.m. with a call from the Nobel Committee, then calls from a few other reporters.

And so, I guess I got another call, and then I said to my wife, ‘This is going to be crazy. I won’t get any more calls.’ So I was definitely awake by then. Then about five in the morning, reporters started showing up on our doorstep, people from Denver and elsewhere. Not wanting to bother my wife, I said, “I’m going to work.”

When he got started, he learned that the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) had organized a press conference, and calls kept pouring in on his work phone.

At about 5:30 in the afternoon, I was ready to go home. Before I left the office, the phone rang. And I thought, “Oh, well, maybe I’ll take this one call.” I haven’t taken hundreds of others before. The person asked, “Is that David Wineland?” I said yes, and he said, “This is Air Force One.” President Obama was calling! It was wonderful and wonderful for that to happen. In the end I answered the other calls I received.


Society requires

Although the Nobel Prize can be awarded to a maximum of three individuals, many scientific discoveries involve much greater collaboration. Such was the case for the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics, awarded to Rainer Weiss, Barry Parrish and Kip Thorne for the direct measurement of gravitational waves by the Laser Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO). Corey Gray, Senior Operations Specialist at LIGO Hanford, noted to Zierler in 2020 that the recipients demonstrated the enormous importance of the collaboration.

Ray, Barry and Kip made her known [to the Nobel Committee] That this was a group project. … They were not able to change the decision of the Nobel Committee, but at least they expressed their opinion. They let everyone in the collaboration know we are a part of it. There’s a message in our control room that I think Ray, Kip, and Barry penned. She’s framed in the control room, and she just talked about how LIGO’s work wouldn’t have happened without all of the team members.

Although he did not receive a medal, Gray could not wait to celebrate the award.

It was so cool with the Nobel Prize. I knew that if they won it, I would take time off, pay my way, and make sure to fly to Stockholm. I did, and my family wanted to go – so my dad and siblings joined in. We sped outside the concert hall in the cold while they were getting their medals. It was amazing!

Rainer Weiss, Barry Parish, and Kip Thorne at the Nobel Gala, 2017.
Left to Right: Rainer Weiss, Barry Parish and Kip Thorne attend the 2017 Nobel Prize Awards Ceremony. Their LIGO colleague, Corey Gray, was partying with his family outside the Stockholm Concert Hall. Credit: Pi Frisk / © Nobel Media AB 2017
A teacher remembers her student

Joseph Taylor may have won a Nobel Prize for astrophysics research, but he started out as an undergraduate at Haverford College thinking it would be a math major. When he found out he enjoys physics classes much more than math, he wasn’t sure if he should switch. He reached out to one of his professors, Faye Azenberg-Seloff, a nuclear physicist and National Medal of Science recipient, seeking guidance.

One of the pioneers of physics, Faye Siloff was a wonderful teacher. I wrote her a letter over the summer before my sophomore year, effectively saying, “I’m not really sure I like what I’m doing. Should I be a physics major instead? I’ll try to catch up with the others in my class.” She cheerfully encouraged me, saying, “Go ahead; you’ll catch up.”

And as it turns out, I’ve memorized my post. Years later, after the Nobel Prize was announced, we were present at a ceremony in Haverford. Fei pulled the letter and said, “I’ve kept this letter for 30 years, to use it against you at some point in the future.”

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