Nobel laureates also win instant celebrity

December 16, 1992|By Knight-Ridder News Service

When Guity Nashat asked Tiffany and Co. to put aside a necklace, the exclusive jewelry story told her she was too late. Someone else had called already.

Too bad, Ms. Nashat told store employees, she wanted to wear the necklace in Stockholm, Sweden, when her husband received the Nobel Prize.

Did she say Nobel Prize? In that case, Tiffany told her, the necklace was hers.

No other award confers international prestige like the Nobel Prize, the awards founded by Alfred B. Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, at the turn of the century. There are Pulitzer Prizes and McArthur Foundation genius awards, but the Nobel is the Most Valuable Player award for intellectuals, the one kudos that tells the world that the winner truly is smarter than the rest of us.

"In terms of prestige, in general, nothing approaches it," said Ms. Nashat's husband, Gary Becker, a University of Chicago professor and a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. Dr. Becker received his economics prize from the king of Sweden last week.

Important people seek out the opinions of Nobel laureates, even on subjects they know nothing about. They testify before congressional committees, throw out balls at baseball games and are beseeched to lend their names to petitions. Years after winning the award, they still receive autograph requests in the mail.

"They are used as prophets and oracles," said Henry A. Singer, executive director of the American Nobel Anniversary Committee in Westport, Conn., which brings winners together for symposiums.

Much of the time, the Nobel Prize takes academics who have been laboring in obscure laboratories and offices and throws them into a whirlwind of publicity.

For some, it is a time to enjoy the limelight. They are invited to parties. They appear on television. They get better seats in restaurants. They can spend their prize money, which, depending on the rate of exchange, may be as much as $1 million.

To others, the attention can be painful. "Winning the Nobel introduced enormous, indescribable turmoil," said Czeslaw Milosz, a professor emeritus at the University of California-Berkeley who won the literature prize in 1980. "All the pieces of my life were destroyed for a long time. To be a celebrity is a very hard thing to withstand."

Whenever a laureate speaks on even the most highly technical subject, the phrase "Nobel Prize winner" attached to the speaker's name means the auditorium will be filled.

"A curious thing is you get more invitations for doing things for more money, for grander occasions, from people who really don't want to hear you," said Harold Varmus, a University of California-San Francisco professor who shared the Nobel in medicine in 1989. "My rule is to pay more attention to requests from students who offer you small amounts for a seminar."

Richard Feynman, the late California Institute of Technology professor who won the physics award in 1965, once billed himself as "Professor Henry Warren" to ensure that only the truly interested show up for his seminar on the proton.

Feynman's distaste for celebrity, though, wasn't deep enough to prevent him from being the guest of honor one year at the carnival celebrations in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

When Dr. Becker won his Nobel this year, the vice president of a bank in a small town southwest of Chicago asked if he would speak to the local chamber of commerce. "They said it would be wonderful publicity for him," said Dr. Becker's secretary, Myrna Hieke. "I pointed out he didn't need it."

But Nobel winners are trotted out, almost as tourist attractions. "I do find foreign visitors come to Stanford and want to see me," said Kenneth Arrow, a Stanford professor who won the economics prize in 1972. "I do have the rather unpleasant feeling it's like looking at a monument."

Part of Nobel lore is that after someone wins the prize, his or her productive years are finished. Ernest Hemingway once said that "no son of a bitch that ever won the Nobel Prize ever wrote anything worth reading afterward." He nearly proved himself right after winning the award in 1954.

Harriet Zuckerman, a sociologist at Columbia University who wrote "Scientific Elite: Nobel Laureates in the U.S.," found that the myth is reality. The number of papers Nobel winners published in the 10 years after the award was significantly less than the number their peers wrote.

"There are some people who if they get the prize at a very early age, it's very difficult for them to resist the propaganda that they're very clever, very important people," said Stanford's Richard Taylor, who shared the Nobel in physics in 1990, when he was 60. "The older you get, the easier it is to see it in some perspective."

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