100 ways to find out you are a Nobel 'schnook'

5th October 2009, Comments 0 comments

Tracking down laureates is always tricky for the Nobel prize committees, which try to alert the winners just before the announcement is made public.

Stockholm -- Some are woken by a phone call in the wee hours or the pilot of a plane they are in emerges to tell them, but for most Nobel laureates news of the triumph comes as a big surprise.

Tracking down laureates is always tricky for the Nobel prize committees, which try to alert the winners just before the announcement is made public.

The 1998 Medicine Prize laureate, Louis Ignarro of the United States, thought someone was playing a prank on him.

At Nice airport in France, an attendant gave him a telephone with "an important phone call from the US," he recalled on the Nobel Prize website, explaining that it was one of his colleagues on the line.

It was a colleague on the line. "He usually jokes around with me and so on and he calls me all the time. He asked me how I was doing, how was the weather, how was the trip," Ignarro said.

"I said fine, fine, but I'm very busy I have to get on the plane, let me call you in about an hour when I get to Naples. He said 'okay but before you go, I have to tell you: you won the Nobel Prize'."

The line was suddenly disconnected and it was only after Ignarro landed in Italy that another colleague confirmed the news.

Richard Ernst of Switzerland was in the skies when the pilot of his Moscow-New York flight came to his seat to inform him that he had won the 1991 Nobel Chemistry Prize.

In 1999, Germany's Guenther Grass refused to cancel a dentist's appointment even though he just learned he had won the Literature Prize. "It may help me calm my nerves," he joked at the time.

Italian dramatist Dario Fo was driving on a motorway in 1997 when a journalist who was following his car for a television programme pulled up alongside and held up a sign that read "Dario you won the Nobel."

Most laureates learn the news by a phone call from Stockholm or Oslo just a few minutes before the public announcement -- often in the middle of the night, if the winner is on the other side of the Atlantic.

"Who is this calling me in the middle of the night?," was Turkish author Orhan Pamuk's first reaction when he won the 2005 Literature Prize while in New York.

For some, a call in the middle of the night sparks fear, as was the case with India's Amartya Sen.

He was afraid that "something terribly tragic must have happened" when he was told that he was the 1998 Economics Prize winner.

Germany's Reinhard Selten, who won the same award four years earlier, thought his house had been burglarised when he came home from grocery shopping to find a crowd milling around outside his home.

"I stopped the car, I got out and someone came to me and said 'I congratulate you.' I said: 'For what?' And so he explained to me," Selten recalled.

US scientist Martin Chalfie did not even bother to get up when he heard a phone ring in the middle of the night in 2008, convinced it was the neighbour's phone.

"I woke up at ten after six, and I realised that they must have given the prize in chemistry, so I simply said, 'Okay, who's the schnook that got the prize this time?'," he remembered.

"And so I opened up my laptop, and I got to the Nobel Prize site and I found out I was the schnook!"

The Nobel committees prefer to inform the laureates at the last possible moment in order to prevent leaks.

"We want them not to get it too early because they have a tendency to inform their relatives and spread the news," the former permanent secretary of the Nobel medicine committee, Hans Joernvall, told AFP.

In 2004, Wangari Maathai of Kenya told an AFP journalist in Kenya that she had won the Peace Prize 15 minutes before the formal announcement was made.

Tracking down the laureates is usually a trying task.

But Joernvall had no trouble finding Australians Robin Warren and Barry Marshall, honoured in 2005 for their joint research.

"I decided to start to phone the oldest as I usually do, and it was Warren. I told him and after a half minute, to my great surprise, he asked "Do you want to talk to Barry?," he said.

The pair had made an annual tradition of having a beer together at the pub during the Nobel announcement to console each other over not winning the prize.


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