Prizes, pomp, poached prawn

Nobels: Sweden takes advantage of its moment in the world spotlight.

December 11, 2003|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

STOCKHOLM, Sweden - There were jetloads of flowers, flown to this wintry capital from San Remo, Italy, where Alfred Nobel died on Dec. 10, 1896. There was the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, playing enough trumpet fanfares for a coronation, which this was, sort of.

There were gold medals and royal handshakes for Baltimore's Dr. Peter C. Agre and nine other laureates. And to top off last night's formal award of the 2003 Nobel Prizes for physics, chemistry, medicine, economics and literature, there was the banquet.

It was prepared by 32 of Sweden's top chefs over three days, served by 156 waiters and 52 wine stewards. Each walked an estimated three miles during the evening, ensuring that the 1,380 luckiest people in Sweden got their champagne cold and breast of guinea fowl hot.

But they didn't mind, said Thomas Ering, 50, a wine steward working his 15th Nobel night: "People come from all over Sweden just to work at the Nobel banquet. It's not for the money. It's for the honor."

Brought off with elegance and mystery, the day's events demonstrated why the world looks to Sweden to organize its most prestigious awards.

In Stockholm's main concert hall, the perfectly choreographed afternoon medal ceremony was accompanied by sparkling performances of Handel, Mozart and Beethoven.

Outside the white-tie-and-tails banquet, 10-year-old Scouts held flaming brands to light the path for arriving guests, while torches cast glittering reflections on the waters that define this island-spanning capital.

Presiding over all was King Carl XVI Gustaf, an amiable 57-year-old outdoorsman whose only real tasks were to hand out prizes and open the banquet with a toast to Alfred Nobel.

Apart from that, he had only to look regal, which he did handsomely, assisted by Queen Sylvia, whose six languages came in handy with this international crowd, and their three kids.

Bengt Samuelsson, chairman of the Nobel Foundation, noted the growing dominance of American science in the Nobel competition - five of the seven science laureates this year now work in the United States.

He attributed the U.S. success to "America's open, democratic and flexible university system," a per-capita research budget that is double the European average and a "transparent" system for deciding grants based on rigorous peer review.

But in a two-minute after-dinner speech, Agre sounded a cautionary note. The Johns Hopkins University researcher, who shared the Nobel Prize in chemistry, offered a passionate warning about the dangers of ignorance of science - clearly with the United States in mind.

"The need for general scientific understanding by the public has never been larger, and the penalty for scientific illiteracy never harsher," he said from a spotlighted podium in the stone basement banquet hall of Stockholm's City Hall.

"Lack of scientific fundamentals causes people to make foolish decisions about issues such as the toxicity of chemicals, the efficacy of medicines, the changes in global climate."

Agre, son of a chemistry professor and himself a revered mentor in his lab at Hopkins' School of Medicine, concluded by calling for applause - but not for the king, not for the cooks, not for the Nobel winners.

Instead his tribute went to "the heroes behind past, present and future Nobel Prizes - the men and women who teach science to children in our schools."

Literature laureate J.M. Coetzee, a South African novelist who rarely speaks in public, surprised many in the crowd with warm, personal remarks:

"My mother would have been bursting with pride. `My son the Nobel prize winner.' And for whom, anyway, do we do the things that lead to Nobel Prizes if not for our mothers?"

After the cognac and after-dinner speeches, about 11 p.m., the crowd climbed the stairs for dancing to a pop music band in a golden-walled ballroom.

When they were kicked out of City Hall two hours later, hundreds headed for a legendary "Nightcap" party thrown by students from Stockholm University.

The Nobel Foundation showed its show-biz savvy by unveiling the details of the annual extravaganza only at the last minute, building suspense for a surprisingly interested Swedish public following via television and the Internet.

"We're very proud of this," said Kerstin Keiser, 63, a saleswoman at a Swedish crafts store two blocks from the concert hall. "I'll still be working when it starts, so I told my husband to tape it all for me. You get to see the laureates. You get to see how the king and queen look this year."

At noon yesterday, the foundation made public the seating chart for the banquet's main table. Aficionados could ponder the fact that former U.S. Vice President Al Gore - invited by Cisco, a networking company and Nobel sponsor - was seated beside the Swedish foreign minister. Or speculate about why the queen chose as her seatmate this year's oldest laureate, 87-year-old Russian physicist Vitaly L. Ginzburg.

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