What It’s Like to Notify a Nobel Prize Winner

“We tell assistants this is a very important call. A. Very. Important. Call.”

nobel prize
Silja Goetz for Reader’s Digest

Come the second week of October, if Staffan Normark, the permanent secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, is on the line, it will probably be the most important conversation of your life. If it’s a Tuesday, he will be informing you that you have won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. If it’s a Wednesday, Physics. Economics comes the Monday after.

Normark has a strategy for getting his phone calls past secretaries. “We tell them this is a very important call. A. Very. Important. Call.” He enunciates each word carefully before moving on to the clincher: “From Stockholm.” So far, he has always been put through.

The 615-member academy votes on the winners at 9:30 a.m., and Normark makes his call at 11:15 a.m. If you don’t pick up the phone, the ceremony continues without you. The public announcement comes at noon. If, like Saul Perlmutter (Physics, 2011), you live in California and the call comes, unanswered, in the middle of the night, then it could be the television news vans outside your house that alert you of your prize.

Making the calls is the best part of Normark’s job, he says, though it can be stressful. Weeks of research go into finding the correct phone numbers. “How they get them, I don’t know,” he says. The morning of The Call, “it’s nervous in the room,” says Normark. “We like to find the individuals.” Once the committee got the wrong number, conferring the most important scientific prize in the world on a confused neighbor of the right person.

Others take some diligent tracking down. Paul Nurse (Physiology or Medicine, 2001), for one, figured he was out of the running. The geneticist and cell biologist, and now president of the Royal Society in London, says, “For three years, I’d had some calls from journalists asking me, ‘Do you think you’ll win this year?’” So when he hadn’t heard by mid-morning, he thought, Oh well, and went out.

But halfway through a meeting, a message came from Nurse’s office. Could he please listen to his voice mail? “I thought it might be saying I had won. I went back into the room I’d just left and said, ‘Do excuse me. I think I’ve won the Nobel Prize.’”

More often, Normark must convince the recipient that he’s telling the truth. Recalls economist James Mirrlees, who got the call in 1996, “I politely suggested that I’d need some proof.” John Gurdon (Physiology or Medicine, 2012) was in his laboratory when he was told he had won the Nobel for cloning a frog. Given that this was work he had done 50 years earlier, he assumed that “someone was pulling my leg.” Luckily, says Normark, “I have a very Swedish accent.”

For Normark, the most satisfying reaction of all, though, is utter surprise. “The person on the line is completely silent. You can just barely hear breathing,” he says.

Even when the would-be winners have an inkling that it could be their time, when their phone rings, they can’t help being shocked. Serge Haroche (Physics, 2012) was out walking with his wife when he saw a Swedish area code appear on his cell phone. “[When I heard the news], I was lucky to be walking near a bench, so I was able to sit down immediately. It was really overwhelming.”

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