Friday, October 11, 2013

"NOBEL CALLING": Brilliant idea for a feature, brilliantly executed

In the week the Nobel Prizes are being announced, what kind of magazine article can you think of writing? After all, the awards are more than a hundred years old and everything that is there to say about the founder, Alfred Nobel, or his legacy in terms of the prize has been said already, probably many times over.


So trust The Economist's cerebral quarterly, Intelligent Life, to come up with something exceptional. In the most recent issue, Tom Whipple finds out... wait for it... how the Nobel winners hear the good news.

There are three ways people receive the call. The most satisfying, for [Staffan] Normark [permanent secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences], is when it is a total surprise. "Sometimes the person is completely silent. So totally that I don’t even know if they are still there. You can just hear him breathing." He notices his own use of the male pronoun. “It is still,” he says with a twinge of apology, "mainly men."

Sometimes the subjects of his research have an inkling that it could be their time; but when their phone rings, they try not to let themselves believe it. Serge Haroche (physics, 2012) was out walking with his wife when he saw a Swedish code appear on his mobile. "I realised it was real and it’s, you know, really overwhelming," he says. "I was lucky — I was in the street and passing near a bench, so I was able to sit down immediately."

And what is the third way? Find out for yourself by clicking on this link: "Nobel Calling" (that is such a brilliant headline too).
  • By the way, since we're celebrating all things cerebral this week, read (also in Intelligent Life) this brief write-up on P.G. Wodehouse, that master of the English language, and his writing style: "P.G. WODEHOUSE'S ART OF THE COMMA".
  • Illustration courtesy: Intelligent Life/Noma Bar
What happened when "A Beautiful Mind"
got the call from the Nobel committee

Senior media professional PRATIBHA UMASHANKAR commented via e-mail:

Thanks, Ramesh, for sharing this with me.

For me, the most wonderful way a Nobel winner got the news was when John Forbes Nash, Jr (Economics, 1994) got the news. The distinguished mathematician had been suffering from paranoid schizophrenia for years and he would wander around the Princeton University campus like a lost soul. Little did he know that a paper he had written about Game Theory for an economics course he had taken when he was 18 or 20 years old would bring him worldwide renown.

His theory had had far-reaching impact in many fields, such as psychology, politics, marketing, and, of course, behavioural economics. In fact, many people had adapted his Game Theory in several disciplines, and most had thought the originator was dead.

John Nash, too, was dead to the world.

Then, one day, an old colleague accosted Nash, who was walking around in bedraggled clothes around the campus, sat him down on a bench, and told him, "John, you will receive a call from the Nobel committee, telling you that you have won the Nobel Prize for Economics."

And the call came, but the great mathematician, sadly, had no idea why he had won a prize for Economics.

Later, he had a miraculous recovery, after more than three decades of suffering, and he was able to go and receive the Nobel himself, and give an acceptance speech. Such is the stuff modern-day myths are made of!

Nash sold the rights of his story, and the film based on his life, A Beautiful Mind, was made, with Russell Crowe (pictured) playing Nash. The reason he sold the rights was so that his son, who too is schizophrenic, would be provided for.

And to end this on a "Nobel calling" note, this year's Literature winner, Alice Munro, received the news about her much-deserved prize through voice mail.

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