Life on the other side of the Nobel prize

As predictions emerge for this year’s Nobel prizes, to be awarded in October, I couldn’t help but wonder what it’s like for the winners. The early-morning phone call and the ensuing recognition get loads of media coverage. But is the build-up to the prize just buzz, or are the potential winners consumed by hope and curiosity? Do they have trouble sleeping the night before? Do they slumber in a suit? Are they crushed when the call doesn’t come, even though the chances of winning in any given year—or at all—are difficult to predict?

How do people balance their real hopes against their desire to not be that scientist—the one who waits by the phone for a call from Stockholm that never comes? Craig Mello, a biologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, described the moment he received the call, pretty much out of the blue, and how it’s changed his life since. Even though he now regularly testifies before Congress to support scientific research, he still had to take out the garbage the next day.

MIT's Frank Wilczek, winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize in physics
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/FILE

Frank Wilczek, the MIT scientist who shared the 2004 physics prize, sent an account of the night before that he wrote when the memory was fresh:

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“Since the early 1980s I had thought there was a realistic possibility that I’d get the Nobel Prize. Our work was clearly very important for physics, and by then accurate experiments had confirmed it. So each October, around the announcement time, I had a very difficult time sleeping. 2004 was no exception, and I really didn’t sleep at all on the night of October 4. ...

At 5:12 a.m. I was in the middle of my intended shower, when my wife came in with our telephone in hand. I hadn’t heard any ringing, because of [the] noise of the water. She said, ‘There’s a woman with a beautiful voice calling from Sweden for you.’ I got out of the stall, naked and dripping wet, to take the call. It was the Nobel Prize.

Another thing I hadn’t anticipated is that the phone call was not just a simple “You’ve won, congratulations, goodbye.” Far from it. I didn’t count, and it’s somewhat of a blur to me now, but I think that about a dozen officials of the Nobel Foundation, the Swedish Academy of Sciences, and physics friends took up the conversation, one after another.

It was wonderful. I had never enjoyed being dazed, naked, and wet all at the same time quite so much, and I don’t suppose that I will again.”

Wilczek and Jack Szostak, a biologist at Massachusetts General Hospital who shared the 2009 medicine prize answered a few other questions by e-mail.

Jack Szostak, a biologist at Massachusetts at General Hospital and Nobel laureate
Dina Rudick/Globe Staff/FILE

Q: What did you do the night before?

SZOSTAK: Went to sleep. After some nervous anticipation the first few years after winning the Lasker [Award], I had concluded that the chance of winning the Nobel was very small. However, my wife was awake with the phone in her hand when the call came.

Q: Is this a date people have in the back of their minds and anticipate?

SZOSTAK: Sure, I think if people have been talking about it and saying you are a likely candidate, or if you’ve won major awards already, it would be hard not to know about the announcement dates.

WILCZEK: I can only speak for myself—yes, I was very conscious of it. And in the circles I move in, i.e. the research university environment, gossip about upcoming Nobels is very popular.

Q: How does life change afterward?

SZOSTAK: Things are pretty hectic in between the announcements and the week to 10 days in Sweden. After that, its more or less back to normal. ... I think the good things are the opportunities to encourage young people to be interested in science, or to stay in science if they are already involved; also, helping to raise money to help scientists do really creative work is quite rewarding.

WILCZEK: It changed a lot! There was a whirlwind of publicity, both for myself and for my work, a great week-long party in Sweden. And then life continued on a higher plane of self-confidence and self-esteem. Many opportunities opened up. Also, I got back to sleeping well in early October.

Q: Do you have any predictions you’d like to share?

SZOSTAK: Yes, I hope my colleague Gary Ruvkun wins this year! Of course there are quite a few great scientists in the Boston area who might win, so it will be interesting to see what happens.

WILCZEK: I don’t have any inside knowledge, but I think this year the overwhelming favorite has to be a subject—the discovery of the Higgs boson. Peter Higgs and Francois Englert are leading contenders for personal recognition. But there could be surprises.