On the eve of the Nobel week “MK” interviewed Erling Norrby – Keeper of the archive of the Nobel Committee, the chief master of ceremonies, chief of Protocol of the Nobel prize and author of three books about the history of the award. Mr. Norrby was in Russia at the invitation of the President of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the support of the Director of the St. Petersburg Institute of Bioregulation and gerontology of the North-Western branch of the RAS Vladimir Havinson.
In conversation with him we learned:
– how is the selection of laureates;
-why the Nobel prize at the time went to Dmitry Mendeleev;
– what was the reaction on receiving this high award from Zhores Alferov;
– put yourself vaccinated against influenza virologist with the world famous Erling Norrby.
Before you start the conversation, we got a little acquainted with Erling Norrby, which for more than 20 years was actively involved in selecting Nobel prize laureates. We finally found out who in 2000 as a big supporter of Russia and Russian science contributed to the award of the Nobel prize our scientist Zhores Ivanovich Alferov. Of course, it was Mr. Norrby! By the way, he, along with all the Russian people were angry about how unfair at the time, bypassed the Committee of the great Russian scientist Dmitri Mendeleev. Edited Norby published a book by Ulf Lagerkvist “the Periodic table and a missed Nobel prize”, which describes how it happened. Mendeleev was nominated for the Periodic system of elements, just a year before his death, in 1906, but something did not work, won (by a whisker) rivals from different scientific schools and the Nobel prize “went” in the wrong hands.
“High science starts at school”
– Mr. Norrby, tell me what, from your point of view, significance of scientific discovery?
– Even the Nobel Committee uses the term “discovery”, but in physics it can be “invention,” in chemistry, “discovery” or “improving”. We came to the entry that the main criterion, among others, must be something unexpected, which is of great importance for science. From this point of view medicine gives us a huge opportunity. For example, the discovery of the DNA double helix or new methods of diagnosis using ECG… Our colleagues-the doctors are complaining a little to us that we give out prizes for such discoveries in biology that have no quick exit in practice, do not give a specific return. But I have to say that the reputation of the Nobel Committee is that we find the major milestones in science that indicate the future path of researchers for many years to come. For example, the decoding of the human genome has revolutionized the world of biology, and now we already see the impact of this discovery on medicine.
– Countries and politicians face off wins in the science almost as well as victories in the Olympics. Reflects whether the number of winners of the real state of science in the country?
– Of course, reflects. And according to statistics, the issuance of our awards we can see how varied the situation over time. For example, before the Second world war, most of the prizes went to scientists from Germany, France, UK. Representatives of the United States were less. After the war, for reasons probably known to you, the United States took the leading position. Now 70 percent of the Nobel prize (NP) in the field of natural Sciences it is issued by the American scientist. But I want to stress that we always strive to achieve maximum objectivity as is possible for human beings. We do not give NP depending on the nationality, gender or age. First of all look at the study itself and what benefits it brings to mankind, and then at who it belongs to.
– Russia has a small grudge against the Nobel Committee in connection with the fact that he was unjustly, as we think, neglects our compatriots, making many interesting discoveries. You agree with that?
– I deeply respect Russian science is the science of very high level, especially in physics. If you’ll notice, we have a lot of Nobel laureates-physicists from Russia. I think this is because the education system you have, despite the change of political systems, little has changed and always remained at a high level. Actually, I believe that high science starts at school. Then at the Institute it is important to find a mentor that would be for the student a kind of model of a scientist whose example we should follow.
Your country among other countries gave a lot of discoveries early in the last century. In the field of Virology, where I am a professional, I want to note Mr. Ivanovsky (Dmitry Ivanovsky was the founder of Virology – Ed.) who first identified viruses as disease-causing organisms. There is also Peter Chumakov, Anatoly Smorodintsev, Ms. Bukrinsky (Alice Bukrinsky Ed.). All this is very well-known Russian scientists. In addition Russia is strong in the area of vaccines.
-Why do many Russian scientists, in spite of the merits, left behind?
– I do not think that Russian scientists have left behind. Just increased competition. If we compare the number of scientists dealing with science a hundred years ago, and now their number has increased significantly. Were the scientists from the East, the Middle East, who also promote their scientific work, increasing competition. All the strongest Russian scientists at least nominated for the Award and are evaluated accordingly. We have a very well developed system of nomination. We invite nominations of scientists of the highest level.
Always answer phone calls
– Tell us more about the procedure of selection of winners.
– It starts after 31 January, when it received information about all the nominees. During the first meeting of the members of the Committee there is a brief overview of all the works: old, new, first time members are nominated by the author or not. Define also, whether one or the other work a more detailed study. This work is being done until may. In may begins the detailed analysis of the participating studies. Since 1966, we began to involve international reviewers. One reviewer may rate as work, and the whole area of science and say that it may be the most important. There are many important aspects. For example, who was the first in a particular opening. Articles in scientific journals sometimes almost simultaneously, and therefore it is necessary to look very carefully at the pioneers. In addition, if a job is some kind of laboratory, it is necessary to understand whether there is a leader who belongs to the very essence of the open, or is it equally to all members of the team. This part of the work carried out until August, then comes three weeks of vacation for the reviewers, and they spend it on writing reviews about the work. The result is a large 500-page almanac, a right which is only for members of the Committee. Having it in hand, we analyze reviews of research and identify two or three candidates in different categories.
In October, before the announcement of the winners the most important issue for us is secrecy, nominee no one needs to know in advance.
– What happens at the final meeting of the Nobel Committee?
It’s an honor and privilege to attend this final meeting. I am not a member of the Committee for physiology and medicine, but as a member of the Academy present at the meetings in physics and chemistry. On Tuesday, October 4, we will meet and the chair will briefly present all the candidates in physics. It takes about 45 minutes, we plunge deeply into the whole area of science. The Committee will propose one candidate for the Nobel prize, and we again will hear lecture about the selected winner. Then followed a half-hour break for lunch. However, not all of it eating. The General Secretary of the Committee must have time in this short time to call all the winners and to announce that they received the Nobel prize and perhaps soon they will call journalists…. From 1970 to 2003, this mission was fulfilled and I will tell you, it wasn’t easy. It used to be that people had to be lifted out of bed at 3am, and then another long time to convince that this is not a joke. There was a case when I had to call in Saint-Petersburg Mr. Alferov (Zhores Alferov is a developer of semiconductor heterostructures – Ed.) and tell him about the award. He was busy and refused to take up. Maybe thought it was a joke? I had to call his Secretary and ask him to convince his boss that I’m calling in all seriousness. It turned out that Alferov had the wrong day of awarding the prize in physics and was not expecting such a call.
– What happened then?
-When he finally lifted the receiver and heard from me information on the award of the Nobel prize, he seemed to have completely lost control screaming with delight, waving their hands, was very pleased.
Not all kings can
I know that you write books about the winners of solved archives that become available after 50 years after the awards ceremony, which scientific discoveries have particularly impressed you?
For me personally, this is my area of science. The brightest page in our history is the entire field of molecular biology, DNA sequencing. Made in the area of the opening allow you to read the book of life on Earth in the history of its evolution, which began 3.8 billion years ago. Now the level of our knowledge in genetics allows us to write the book of life, and making your changes. But if I were a physicist, I would have said a number of discoveries from that gave us albert Einstein, Nobel prize winner of 1922, before the discovery of particle physics. Physics has the purpose to look into the Universe and understand what that is. It is with regard to theoretical physics… but from a practical point of view, I would say the invention of the transistor, which revolutionized electronics. All of our modern communication has evolved thanks to the invention of the transistor.
Another question on the “archive” topic: what is the biggest mistake was made by the Nobel Committee for all 115 years of its operation?
In my area of expertise, in physiology, they are almost not there. Can only be the Nobel prize 1929, issued for the opening, which is then not confirmed.
– Can a journalist get access to the archive of the Nobel Committee?
-No, just a scientist, which is necessary for the work.
– How increases with age, the number of nominees?
– In 1901, in each category there were 80 to 100 nominees, now from 400 to 500 people. The lack of candidates we feel.
Was there ever pressure on the decision of the Nobel Committee?
– I think we all know that it is absolutely useless, since everything is happening in complete secrecy. Was really one case.. In 1961, our Prime Minister tage Erlander went on an official visit to France and met with French President Charles de Gaulle. “Could you give our scientist a Nobel prize, asked one of our policy – and we have their no. In response, Mr. Erlander said: “have no influence on the Nobel Committee.” By the way, in that year, coincidentally, that France still won the Nobel prize. We are all very strictly in terms of bias. Every reviewer must notify the Committee about their possible relationship with the candidate: if he knows him personally, never met with him earlier etc.
– Scientific lobbying on the part of scientific schools possible?
– Don’t do offers, despite Nobel’s will, after all, to include mathematicians in the number of potential winners?
– This was a lot of discussion, but the last will of the founder of the Award, there is a last will, and nothing can be done. Sam Nobel, who was a very practical man, considered mathematics an abstract science.
– Prize in literature and the peace prize is always controversial of the population. The Committee often either accused of excessive politicization, or that he just does not see truly talented authors. Maybe it’s time to change something in the procedure of selection of candidates in these categories?
– This is not my area of expertise, but I can say for sure that a suitable Committee with full responsibility and this work. Of course, it is very difficult to review the entire world literature. Besides, she still needs to be translated into English. Sometimes the Committee itself pays for the transfer, to assess the significance of the works. During the existence of NK we followed the Testament of Nobel, who said that literature, nominated for the award should not be idealistic content. I mean, a writer like Leo Tolstoy and other stars of world literature could not get NP a bequest of Nobel. Just recently look at literature began to expand. I can say that in selecting candidates, there is no external political influence. The level of success this nomination, I would estimate 50 per cent, not all of it is sometimes satisfied.
As for the peace prize, her situation is even more complicated. From the beginning it had a political subtext. Very difficult to assess the contribution to peace of this or that politician or group of people. All this is quite abstract. I recently buried Shimon Peres, on the occasion of the award which could also be debatable. And the Nobel prize to Mr. Kissinger (Henry Kissinger — U.S. Secretary of state from 1973 to 1977 — Ed.) considering the war in Vietnam? There are a lot of controversial issues, and because the success rate in this category I would rate even less – about 30 percent.
– Has some influence on the Nobel Committee of the Swedish king?
-No. We just have to keep him in the loop. Still, the Banquet, which is happening after the ceremony, pays for it, the prize helps, too, he said, learning about the results of the selection for a week before the others. But about the process of selecting the king knows nothing. The last book I wrote, that king Augustus V participated in the ceremony of awarding 23 times. August VI about the same, but the current king (Carl XVI Gustaf – Ed.) in which I served, has set a record, he was given the award already 43 (!) times.
How the viruses affected the arrival of Mr. Norrby in Russia
I can say the hottest directions in the field of Virology, in which you are engaged?
– Research a virus has been a huge leap forward. From the definition of their place in the body we moved on to the production of vaccines. Not of all, of course. For example, from HIV vaccine yet, but we have created a retro-virus that still allows for quite a long time to live with this disease. In addition, we identified the virus, Zeke and probably soon will create a vaccine from it. But from a broader point of view, it is interesting to find out what role viruses play in evolution. Just think: in one milliliter of water from the Moscow river about a million microorganisms and about 10 million virus particles, in our body is about 6-7 trillion cells, and microorganisms and viruses more than 10 times. Where are they and what is the role? I think that it will be in the near future, the main subject of the study of Virology. If you think about it our meeting we also need to say “thank you” viruses, since the evolution of living beings would not have been possible without their participation.
– In our country does not abate debate about flu vaccinations. So, do I need to put them vaccinated and if you do?
Is of course necessary from year to year to look at the situation. But if you see a big wave propagation of incidence, it is better to expose your population vaccination. The risk group most likely to be elderly, which is more difficult is to cope with the disease. In Sweden we conduct free vaccination for all citizens over 60 years old. But for me, I’m not vaccinated against influenza. I think that for all the time with a virus I got enough experience with them and the immune response, therefore I do not need.
– Recently in Russia there was a reform of science, about which until now did not subside debate among scientists and officials. You travel a lot, get acquainted with different systems of organization of scientific process. Can say the best of them?
This is a very important question. As for my favorite places, I can highlight the Rockefeller University in the US, where investing in specific people who can work in certain areas of science. The second place I would put Cambridge University in the UK. There is a wonderful lab of molecular biology, which has long been a stronghold of the science. As the Dean of the medical Department of the Karolinska Institute, I constantly wonder how to effectively organize the environment. Came to the conclusion that, firstly, it is necessary to hire the best people and provide them with conditions so loose as possible with a minimum amount of bureaucratic barriers. Secondly, it is necessary to explain to politicians that science is not an area that can accurately predict a specific result. They need to understand the importance of basic research without which there can be no practical result.