What You Don't Know About Nobel Laureates

November/December 2006

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What You Don't Know About Nobel Laureates

Photo: Glenn Matsumura

Kenneth Arrow once planned on becoming a high school math teacher. Instead, in 1972 he became the youngest person—51—to win the Prize in Economics in Memory of Alfred Nobel. Now 85, he is professor emeritus of economics at Stanford and continues to write, lecture and serve on advisory committees. Since Andrew Z. Fire, professor of pathology and of genetics, and Roger D. Kornberg, PhD ’72, professor of structural biology, recently won the prizes for medicine and chemistry (see story), STANFORD asked Arrow for an insider look at the life of a laureate.

Economics is the oddball award.
Since 1901, the foundation endowed by Alfred Nobel has awarded prizes in physics, chemistry, literature, medicine and peace. The economics prize, officially “The Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel,” was added in 1968 to celebrate the bank’s 300th anniversary. “I’m always very careful to put the word ‘memorial’ in so nobody accuses me of pretending to be a scientist,” Arrow says.

Winners get an abrupt awakening.
Notification is on Stockholm time—in Arrow’s case, his wife fielded the 5 a.m. phone call. Arrow was at the airport, where a ticket agent informed the bemused economist that he had several calls waiting. “I picked up the phone and it was the ABC news service,” he recalls. “Of course, then I knew.” Later, on the plane, “They announced that onboard there was a brand new Nobel Prize winner and they broke out champagne for everybody.”

Celebrity status isn’t too hard to get used to.
It starts with a five-star trip to Sweden in winter. “It’s like going to fairyland,” Arrow says. A diplomat escorts each winner’s family through a whirlwind of banquets and excursions. Arrow recalls that although a museum of Asian antiquities he wished to visit was closed, the diplomat promised, “For you, the museum will be open.” His tour guide? The archaeologist who dug up the relics.

Dust off the ol’ penguin suit.
The ceremony requires formal dress. “The one thing every Nobel Prize winner I know has complained about is getting the studs into your stiff shirt,” says Arrow. “This is a very difficult task!”

You don’t wear the bling to dinner parties.
The medal is “really quite heavy, and there’s not a ribbon,” Arrow says. “I don’t quite know what to do with it. I’ve got it in a vault, because it’s solid gold!”

Winning the Nobel Prize doesn’t necessarily pave your way through academia.
“I can’t honestly say my career is significantly altered,” he muses. “I’ve been turned down for grants and had papers rejected, and I think that’s right.” Winners are often asked to endorse causes, but Arrow says he only whips out his Nobel cred when writing on behalf of political prisoners.

Economics expert + Nobel = You figure out the restaurant tip, right?
“People may think so, but the second time around they know better. My wife does
the finances.”

Everyone wants credit for the win.
Arrow once devised an equation for splitting credit among a laureate’s universities by the amount of Nobel-related work performed at each. By that standard, Columbia University gets 8 percent of the credit for Arrow’s prize; the University of Chicago gets 4 percent; Harvard gets 23 percent; and Stanford takes the cake with 65 percent.

Nominations are top secret.
Each year, several hundred academics are invited to submit nominations, which are confidential for 50 years. It’s rude to ask to be nominated. “You’re not supposed to seek the prize,” Arrow says. “There are people who write to me and ask, and I say in principle they should not win.” If you want to win a Nobel Prize, “Don’t try,” Arrow says. “You only win if you do what you can, what you have to. To try to [win] has a negative effect.”

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