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Stanford Report, October 3, 2001

How the prize changed Stanford's winners


Caller: Hello?

Osheroff: Yes?

Caller: Am I speaking to Douglas Osheroff?

Osheroff (annoyed): Yes. It's 2:30 in the morning.

Caller: I know it is, but I have a very urgent message for you ...

Osheroff: Yes?

Caller: ... I am Carl-Olof Jacobson, the secretary general of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and I would like to congratulate you because the academy just decided that you, together with David Lee and Sir Robert Richardson, have been awarded the 1996 Nobel Prize in physics ...

Osheroff: My goodness!

Jacobson: ... for your discovery of superfluidity in helium-3.

Osheroff (softer): My goodness.

"I realized at that very moment that my life was changing," Stanford physicist Osheroff says of the call that came in the wee hours of Oct. 9, 1996. "I had really no idea what my new life was going to be like and how well I would like it. I was quite happy with my old life."

How has the Nobel Prize changed Stanford winners' lives?

"The prize had very little effect on my life," says Milton Friedman (Economics, 1976), summing up the claim of most winners. "The only difference I can think of is that it obviously gave me more prestige and brought me to the attention of people who might not have known about me before. As a result, presumably I gave more talks than I otherwise would have, gave more interviews to newspaper reporters than I would have and received a good deal more correspondence from the public at large than I would have. But in all these effects it simply was a minor change in quantity, not in character."

Richard Taylor speaks to the press after winning the Nobel Prize for physics in 1990.

Burton Richter (Physics, 1976) got the prize early (age 45) and quickly (two years after discovering a new particle). Richter, at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, and Samuel Ting, at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, both independently found the particle -- which according to existing theories shouldn't exist at all. Their results were published in the same issue of Physical Review Letters, providing instant confirmation and sparking a revolution in high-energy physics.

At the end of the frenetic October day that Richter's prize was announced, the physicist's wife commented, "Nobody should get the Nobel Prize before they're 60." Richter replied: "Come on, Laurose! This is terrific! It's wonderful!" It took him 15 years to see what she saw instantly, he says: "It's a real battle."

That December, the Richter family flew to Sweden to receive the award. "For one week, you're king of the world," says Richter. "Every wish is catered to. There you are with kings and queens and prime ministers. It's living in a fairy tale." Laureates are assigned a personal servant and chauffeured limousine.

When Richter's wife mentioned an interest in Asian art, a museum that was closed for renovation opened immediately, and the Richters were given a guided tour. When their children went for a hamburger, a picture of them getting out of the limo in front of a McDonald's made the front page of a Swedish newspaper.

Back home, winners have experiences that tend to pass other academics by. Requests for sperm donations. Grants that might not have materialized for less anointed applicants. Invitations to lecture worldwide. (Laureates average 100,000 air miles per year.)

"The prize elevated me in the eyes of many people from being an ordinary person to supposedly having the wisdom of Solomon," says Paul Berg (Chemistry, 1980). It allowed Robert Laughlin (Physics, 1998) to employ a "lite" title -- "The Theory of Everything" -- for an essay that is scientifically acclaimed as a heavyweight and appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Henry Taube (Chemistry, 1983) noticed improved attentiveness of his students despite little change in his lessons. This phenomenon reminded him of a conversation he once overheard between two students at the University of Chicago: "One of them remarked, 'I also have Professor [Harold Clayton] Urey [1934 Nobel laureate in chemistry] in General Chemistry. I don't understand much of what he is talking about, but isn't it wonderful!'"

Other winners say the prize gave them the freedom to pursue unpopular topics. "I'm a contrarian," says Martin Perl (Physics, 1995). "If a lot of other people are doing something, fine. I'd be happy to go read the New York Times." Perl is trying to isolate particles with fractional charge, a pursuit he says most scientists think is hopeless. "I like to do what other experimenters do not," he explains. "This is how I found the tau lepton that led to my Nobel Prize."

William Sharpe (Economics, 1990) calls the prize "the ultimate endorsement" of the importance of a chosen field and the value of a laureate's contributions to it. Laureates are often asked to lend their clout to causes. "The public perception of the prestigiousness of the award has from time to time involved me in issues of social and political importance," says Arthur Kornberg (Medicine or Physiology, 1959). Kenneth Arrow (Economics, 1972) has signed letters on behalf of political prisoners.

And laureates often are tapped for outreach. "As a Nobel laureate, you become an icon," Osheroff says. "You represent science to several different groups of society. If you don't accept that role as a spokesperson, then frequently there is no one else who will get the message out."

Osheroff and Steven Chu (Physics, 1997) have been especially active in student outreach this year, participating in the National Conference of Black Physics Students hosted at Stanford and numerous other events.

There's a cartoon in which a CEO demands of an employee, "So, Jenkins, what have you done for us since getting the Nobel Prize last year?" Says Osheroff: "Once you get the prize, of course, you realize that the answer to that question has to be, 'Nothing! Except give talks!' You're on everyone's list."

It's hard to decline worthy invitations, especially from local groups. But in the name of self-preservation, laureates have to set limits, Richter advises. The hardest word to learn is one of the shortest, he says. "The first thing that you have to learn is to say no."