12.08.09

Nobel High Jinks

Think it’s hard winning a Nobel Prize? Try accepting one. You need to know how to chat up the king, best Olympic hockey goalies, and outdrink the Swedes. Samuel P. Jacobs on Obama’s medal challenge.

President Obama has been known to trip up around an emperor every now and again, so Thursday’s Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, presided over by Norway’s King Harald V, offers a chance, at last, to get it right. Does he bow to the king? Go for the notorious fist bump? Here’s some free advice: Be careful with the air kisses, Mr. President.

Last year, when receiving his Nobel Prize in chemistry, for the development of green fluorescent protein, Martin Chalfie directed an air smooch to his wife and daughter looking on in the audience. The 62-year-old Columbia University scientist spent part of that evening at a dinner in Stockholm being teased by one royal, who seemed to enjoy aping his gesture of affection.

The prize winners were forced to take shots on the hockey net against a Swedish Oympic goaltender, Leif Homlqvist, known to his fans as “Honken.”

Sweden’s Countess Alice Trolle-Wachtmeister turned to Chalfie at the Nobel banquet and told him: “You know, I’ve been to 35 of these. That’s the first time anyone blew a kiss to the audience.” At the close of the meal, Chalfie was milling around with the other guests, enjoying cigars and a last glass of wine. “Every time I would walk around and happened to pass by Countess Alice, she would look at me and start blowing kisses,” Chalfie says.

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It seems many Nobel laureates have a memorable interaction with a member of the Swedish royal family.

Eric S. Maskin, an economist who won the prize in 2007, recalls King Carl XVI Gustaf as being slightly aloof, while his wife, Queen Silvia, was much more approachable.

“He was on the whole kind of grumpy,” Maskin, 59, said. “His wife, the queen, was extremely charming and gracious.” (Maskin also had a nice chat with Countess Alice; be on the lookout for this one, Nobel laureates of 2009. She told the economist about her role in helping prepare Queen Silvia, a product of Germany and Brazil, for Swedish rule.)

Dudley R. Herschbach, a Harvard chemist who was honored with the Nobel Prize in 1986, recalls an exchange with the king and queen about their pet, a pink lop rabbit. Herschbach, 77, informed the royal couple that his father had been the one who had created the breed at his California rabbitry.

“Well, the king was obviously skeptical,” Herschbach says, adding that “the queen was extremely gracious. She asks questions which my dad, of course, confirms, and then she turned to the king and says, ‘You see?’ The king says something else in Swedish. Then the king shut up. It was a charming view of the royal dynamics.”

In general, Nobel week is a sober time—an important opportunity to praise academic inquiry and think about humanity’s accomplishments. And that will likely be the prevailing spirit when Obama, like all Peace Prize winners, is greeted by the Norwegians in Oslo. All other prizes are awarded in Stockholm.

The President will be feted with a five-course meal at the Norwegian capital’s Grand Hotel (where you too can dine like a Nobel Peace Prize winner for $325 a head). The menu is traditionally kept secret until the evening of Dec. 10. Obama will only be in town for two days at the most. Chances are he’ll scoot out of Oslo before the concert, held the next night, which this year is being hosted by Will Smith and his wife Jada Pinkett Smith. If he does beat it early, Obama will miss British pop star Natasha Bedingfeld, country singer Toby Keith, and Wyclef Jean. During his short stay in Oslo, the president will be protected by a 2,000-man police force and razzed by protesters, who object to America's wartime president receiving a medal for peace. That, and the recent memories of Obama’s much-criticized Asia trip, will no doubt make for a quiet evening.

Pity he’s not down the road in Stockholm, where the party apparently burns a little brighter. University students have been known to try to drink the prize winners under the table at endless dinners. And once in awhile, the world’s brainiest people might find themselves forced into an impromptu game of hockey.

Herschbach recalls attending one party with a fire blazing in a courtyard and plenty of grog to go round. At two in the morning, in a restaurant packed to the rafters with students, the laureates were put through their paces. The prize winners were forced to take shots on a hockey net against the Swedish Oympic goaltender, Leif Homlqvist, known to his fans as “Honken.”

“The first of our trio to try was John Polanyi from Canada,” Herschbach says. “He maybe scored three of five. The next to go was the Swiss Heinrich Rohner. He has no athletic talent, very awkward, but fun. Then it was my turn. I never played hockey, but I was a football player. I manage to score all five. I jumped down, and I really got carried away.”

At another raucous dinner, some of the laureates are inducted into the Order of the Ever Smiling and Jumping Little Green Frog. The men, in their coat and tails, and women, in all their finery, are forced to hop and ribbit. For playing along, they are rewarded with entry into the decades-old fraternity and given a small, metal frog to prove it.

At the same meal, a celebration of St. Lucia (leave it to the Swedes to honor light at the darkest time of year), the laureates are assaulted with a barrage of schnapps drinking songs.

“Basically, it’s a song that says you’ve got to drink the whole thing up, and you don’t get anymore. You do that. And the next song is a second schnapps drinking song. A third schnapps drinking song follows,” Chalfie says. “I decided that drinking the whole thing up was not the best idea.”

It’s hard to imagine how President Obama would handle such diplomatic challenges. But then, he did have a chance to warm up, at the Beer Summit.

Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.