In Nobel Nagar

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A tour through the city that host the annual Nobel Prize ceremony is an enlightening experience, reports SYDNEY SRINIVAS

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The Nobel Prizes for 2013 have just been announced, naturally bringing to mind Stockholm in Sweden where the prizes are distributed. I visited the city recently and felt that it should be called ‘Nobel Nagar’ instead of Stockholm. The only interesting places to see there are connected with the Nobel Prize, barring the ABBA museum which, of course, is very vibrant. From many on offer, we took a city tour called ‘In the Footsteps of Alfred Nobel’.

First, we were driven to view the property where the Nobel family lives, but only from outside. The compound was big and it was difficult to see the house inside. Visitors are not allowed within, as the family prefers peace and quiet. Alfred Nobel (1833–96) was a Swedish chemist and engineer who made an abundant amount of money by making dynamite.  He instituted the Nobel Prize that is awarded in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, peace and economics. Only the prize for economics is not funded by the Nobel Trust. In 2012, each prize was awarded with US$1.2 million, and this could go to an individual or a group of no more than three.

December 10 of every year is a day of festivity in Stockholm. All the Nobel Prizes except the one for peace, are distributed on that day. The peace prize is presented in Oslo, Norway. The Swedish award ceremony takes place in the Concert Hall at about noon. On any normal day, the building is surrounded by vendors, but its status is elevated on the awards day.

By tradition, the awardees usually stay in the Grand Hotel in Stockholm, which offers them rooms at a very low price or at no cost. Normally room rental would be US$400 a night.

The event starts with the national anthem of Sweden, while in the presence of the Queen, the King of Sweden hands over the prizes. Before each prize is presented, there is a citation. The awardee makes an acceptance speech after receiving the gold medal and certificate. Then there is a musical interlude played by the Royal Swedish Philharmonic Orchestra. The ceremony lasts about two hours in all and following this, awardees retire to their hotel for a break. Essential as some prize winners could even be in their 80s or 90s, or even in wheelchairs.

The same evening, the awardees and other guests gather at the City Hall for the Nobel Banquet. This impressive red brick building is visible from almost anywhere in Stockholm, and houses the office of the council of the city, which also takes pride in hosting the banquet.

The banquet itself is held in a big hall on the ground floor of the building.  A large table at its centre, about 100 feet long, houses the awardees and the dignitaries. Smaller tables at right angles to this seat the others. The number of invitees are usually about 1300. Space is at a premium, with a person clamped to the seat, making it difficult to move.  There is another condition as well, you cannot get up or move away from your seat till the king finishes eating and rises. Thou shalt not even visit the restroom!

There is a strict dress code; however, the exception is for awardees attired in their national dress, which is most welcome. The food is prepared in the kitchen upstairs and brought down in lifts.

The awardees enter the hall in a procession led by the King and Queen. When the food service starts, royalty is served first, but immediately every guest has been served. The idea is that everyone should eat at the same time as the royalty.

After dinner, guests gather in the Golden Hall upstairs. The walls and the paintings in this room are clad with 18 million pieces of gold. Dancing begins and the dignitaries have a chance to socialise.

It was pointed out to us repeatedly that the King and Queen of Sweden participate in the proceedings with utmost humility, deeming it an honour to be with a handful of people who have contributed exceptionally to mankind and its welfare.

The Nobel Museum situated in the old part of the city, is all about the Nobel Prize and its winners. It is a must for anyone who respects knowledge, and is always full of students wanting to know more about science or literature.

The foyer of the museum contains portraits of the 840 prize winners, accompanied by a short write up on each just below each frame. Next comes an exhibition on peace organised by the International Peace Bureau (winner of the 1910 peace prize). Rejoice Indians, Gandhi gets a prominent position there. His words, “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed” stand out. It is a shame that was not awarded the globally expected peace prize in 1947/48, for which the Nobel committee has apologised profusely. Another Indian features, Vandana Shiva, an environmentalist who took on multinational companies engaged in malpractices hindering the development of countries such as India. She was awarded the Sydney Peace Prize in 2010. Another person that stands out is Albert Einstein with his words, “Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding”.

Although there is a wealth of information about the Nobel Prize winners in science and literature, there seemed no specific display for CV Raman or Rabindranath Tagore.

A big display area contains donations from awardees. Amartya Sen, who was awarded the 1998 prize in economics, donated his bicycle and the mathematics books he used as a student in India. There is the original of a letter Einstein wrote to his son; the crude DNA model belonging to Linus Pauling (winner of Nobel Prizes for Chemistry and Peace); and the chemical balance that Marie Curie used in her experiments. Interestingly, the Curie family, including her husband, daughter and son-in-law has bagged five Nobel prizes!

Chairs in the restaurant at the museum are signed by awardees, so you may be sitting on some Nobel Laureate’s signature! We had a look underneath all, and found the signature of US President Barack Obama.

Eight Indians, CV Raman, Rabindranath Tagore, Har Govind Khorana, Mother Theresa, Subramanian Chandrasekhar, Amartya Sen, Naipaul and Venkataraman Ramakrishna have been awarded Nobel Prizes. Among these, only Raman and Tagore did their prize-worthy work in India.

Taking this trip and learning of the achievements of these Nobel Prize winners, one feels like asking, “What have I done after all? How insignificant is my life?!”