At five o’clock in the morning, the esteemed 86-year-old astrophysicist Jim Peebles was woken suddenly by the telephone ringing.
“In previous experience, the only phone calls at that time of night are bad news,” he said. This one was great news.
“The opening sentence from the caller was: ‘The Nobel committee has voted to award you the Nobel Prize in Physics. Do you accept?’” Peebles recalled. The wording threw him. Who wouldn’t accept a Nobel Prize?
“You know the Bob Dylan fiasco?” he said during a phone interview with CNN. “That might have put the wind up them.”
The “fiasco” Peebles mentions refers to the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature, which was controversially given to an utterly unimpressed Dylan.
Aside from being ever-presents on college campuses in the 1960s, little connects Peebles, an expert in theoretical cosmology, with Dylan. But one of the starkest contrasts might lie in their reactions to winning a Nobel – and the songwriter is far from the only laureate whose crowning turned out to be an awkward affair.
The five committees are notoriously secretive, fiercely shielding their choices from the outside world – including the laureates themselves, who are told of their victories just minutes before they are announced to the public.
That tight-lipped mantra can lead to some heartening surprises, as it did for Benjamin List – the co-winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry – who was having coffee with his wife when he received the news.
“Sweden appears on my phone, and I look at her, she looks at me and I run out of the coffee shop to the street … you know, that was amazing. It was very special. I will never forget,” he told reporters on Wednesday after his victory was announced.
It can also be far less celebratory. “I was lying in bed, and my wife woke up and heard my phone buzzing. And she yelled at me because my phone was waking her up,” David MacMillan, who shared the prize with List, told BBC Radio 4 on Thursday.
“100% [I] missed the call. Classic Scottish person. I [didn’t] believe this is happening, so I went back to bed,” he added – likely the most relatable sentence ever uttered by an expert in chiral imidazolidinone catalysts.
And for some, the sudden ascension to Nobel laureate is an unwanted intrusion altogether. “Oh Christ,” British-Zimbabwean author Doris Lessing said when reporters arrived outside her house to inform her she had won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2007. “I’m sure you’d like some uplifting remarks of some kind.”
“It’s a wonderful thing,” Reinhard Genzel, an astrophysicist who won last year’s Nobel Prize in Physics, told CNN of his win and the months since. “But it’s a chore as well.”
What it’s like to win a Nobel Prize
Few Nobel winners can honestly say their lives weren’t changed when they received the phone call.
As long as they believe it, that is. “These days you get these cold calls, and I thought this is another one of them,” Abdulrazak Gurnah, the winner of this year’s literature prize, told the BBC on Thursday.
“This guy said, ‘Hello, you have won the Nobel Prize for Literature,’ And I said, ‘come on, get out of here. Leave me alone,’” Gurnah said. “He talked me out of that, and gradually persuaded me.”
Winners often can’t be contacted at all, leaving them to find out about their wins from the news, their family, or even their next-door neighbors.
Economist Paul Milgrom was woken in the middle of the night in California by his colleague Robert Wilson banging on his front door. “Paul, it’s Bob Wilson. You’ve won the Nobel Prize,” he shouted into the intercom. “Yeah, I have? Wow,” an utterly confused Milgrom responded, in an exchange captured by a doorbell camera.
Genzel’s phone call came while he was in a Zoom meeting with colleagues last October. “I had absolutely no inkling,” he said. “I thought, my God … obviously this is a fantasy.”
The committee’s secretary told him he “couldn’t say anything for 15 or 20 minutes,” so Genzel tried his best to keep the news to himself. “I walked over to our meeting room … (my colleagues) told me afterwards I was stumbling in there, slightly gazed, telling them to switch on the TV,” he said.
Malala Yousafzai, the youngest Nobel winner at 17, was midway through a chemistry lesson at a school in Birmingham, England, when a teacher interrupted to tell her she had won, she told Reuters. She later told Vogue that she modestly left the achievement off her university applications, because she “felt a bit embarrassed.”
But there are occasions, too, where the winner isn’t quite as thrilled as the Nobel committee might imagine.
Dylan and Ernest Hemingway both skipped the Nobels’ annual banquet; the latter made a point of telling the Swedish Academy that he had “no facility for speech making and no command of oratory.”
But arguably it was Lessing who had the most memorable reaction. She learned of her win as she stepped out of a taxi on the way back from the grocery store. “Have you heard the news? You’ve won the Nobel Prize for Literature!” an enthusiastic reporter told her. Her eyes rolled back in her head before the journalist had even finished his sentence.
Lessing – accompanied by a male acquaintance who stood next to her, bemused, his arm in a sling and a single artichoke in his hand – was clearly more interested in collecting her shopping than talking to the world’s media.
Asked how she felt, she expressed little enthusiasm: “Look, I’ve won all the prizes in Europe, every bloody one.”
“Am I supposed to get excited, or elated, or what?” she remarked. “One can’t get more excited than one gets, you know?”
‘I was treated like a rock star’
As soon as Genzel’s win was announced last year, his face was on televisions around the world. The announcement of a Nobel Prize winner makes the front pages of newspapers and websites almost everywhere, throwing a sudden spotlight on little-known scientists and their complex research.
“Once the announcement is made, you lose your identity within half an hour,” Genzel said. “The telephone rings all the time.”
Peebles had a similar experience just minutes after his early morning phone call. “When I returned to bed my wife said, ‘What was that about?’ I said ‘Nobel Prize,’ and she said: Oh God.” Within minutes, the couple had a photographer outside their door.
Genzel suddenly found himself answering questions about politics on late-night German TV, angering some of his friends with his responses. Peebles, meanwhile, spent much of the day looking through emails from every corner of the world: “Please come visit us, please read my manuscript…”
“It’s one thing to say that the Nobel Prizes attract attention. It’s another to experience it,” he said.
Sometimes, personal relationships change. “There is of course a lot of envy, from some colleagues – many people who are close to me in the same field might very well say, ‘Why did he get it?’” said Genzel.
But before the Covid-19 pandemic scuppered plans for two years in a row, winners were also treated to a gala in Stockholm.
“I was treated like a rock star … I experienced what I expect rock stars to experience,” Peebles said of his banquet in 2019. “It’s a wonderful honor.”
“My attache had an almost endless list of things to do,” he added. “‘Now you must meet these influential people. Now you must go to a news conference. Now we will have dinner with some important people. And on and on.’”
Genzel missed out on the festivities last year, but he enjoyed a low-key affair in Germany. “The governor of Bavaria offered us his residence, (and) we had a fairly nice event with the Swedish ambassador,” he said.
Two years on, CNN asked Peebles whether his email inbox has finally receded to pre-Nobel volumes. “I’d have to look at the data on that,” he responded, ever the empiricist.
But for both men and many other laureates, the most exciting part of the Nobel experience is simply that it gets people talking about science and culture.
“I find it almost a necessity to tell the public at large that there is truth, there is absolute truth,” Genzel said.
“What I hope is understood is the importance of the Nobel Prize in making people aware of the importance of curiosity-driven science or arts,” he said. “I think it must be unique.”