Nobel Day = 10 December

10 December is Nobel Day, the day that Alfred Nobel died and bequeathed his estate to be distributed "in the form of prizes to those, who during the preceding year, have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind" in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace. Economics was added as a memorial prize to Nobel later.

Nobel Day is a big deal in Sweden. Elizabeth's teacher sent home a message: "Also a friendly reminder folks; tomorrow is Nobel Lunch day during cafeteria. the children should dress semi formal but not over the top." What?!! Apparently schools around the country offer a very formal lunch that day- complete with set tables, special food, and pomp and circumstance.

On our end, the Fulbright Commission staff-- Eric, Monica, and Maria-- had told us months ago to reserve this day and evening on the hopes that they could get tickets to the awards ceremony (but no chance for the dinner). They didn't want to get us too excited, but in October, they let us know that it looked likely that we'd be able to attend-- enough Americans had received prizes that having Americans in the audience would be a good thing.

Problem is that the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony has a dress code: evening gowns for women and tails for men (or one's country's clothes). Turns out that if you are in our category (high in the balcony, not attending the formal dinner), a tuxedo was also enough (and maybe okay if you had a full black suit). We both have fancy clothes, but they were stashed in our attic in State College, PA. I contacted Nancy, our realtor, the only person with keys to the attic- she went sleuthing. Pants. Jacket. Dress shirt. Cummerbund. Ties. Cuff Links. Dress. Scarf. Fancy shoes for both. Bagged and dropped off with Wes, a colleague who then brought them to me in Arizona where we both attended a project meeting. Operation fancy clothes = complete.  When Chris told his colleagues at Stockholm University that he was attending the ceremony, they were quite sure that a tux was not enough... tails were needed.

Fast forward: we were notified that yes, indeed, we were going to attend the ceremony. The event overlapped with when my mom is visiting, so we even had some back up for the kids. I double checked the clothes- what we had would suffice.

Day of the ceremony, the Fulbright Commission organized a couple of events before the ceremony. My mom came with on the day's events- spectacular day of just a bit of snow (finally- refreshingly beautiful after days of rains). Blue sky and white everywhere- Stockholm was spectacular.

The Swedish Parliament logotype, back to start pageWe first took a visit to the Riksdag-- the Swedish Parliament. Cool building and a tour from a Swedish member of parliament who had gone to the US as a Fulbright student himself. Fascinating insights into modern day politics in Sweden... another day for that. (Picture to the left is outside the Riksdag; we entered under the right column). Panorama below is one of the old chambers of Parliament- there used to be 2, but now there is one with 349 members. Picture of Mr. Robert Hannah (member of Parliament, Fulbright alum) showing us the Kvinnorummet- the "women's room." The woman in the painting was the 1st woman in Parliament in 1918- and the only one for about 10 years. The last picture is the modern room used for parliamentary debates. 

 After a fabulous lunch, we visited the Hallwyl Museum- a house built in 1890 by an heir to a timber baron; at the time, the construction cost more than the nearby cathedral. No expense spared in this modern wonder. As our tour guide kept noting, this was especially amazing as the house was built for 2 people; the Hallwyl's 3 daughters were grown. The woodwork was amazing, the collections of stuff (china, armory, paintings) a bit overwhelming. The Countess Hallwyl must have been quite something- I'd love to see a modern day Downton Abbey filmed here!



Post-museum, I put my mom on a bus and walked back across town. Chris hopped on a bus in his tux and met me at the Fulbright office. Quick change into finery, a glass of champagne and snacks while people got ready and mingled, and off we walked. The Fulbright staff themselves weren't able to attend- not enough tickets. They hung out in the office to watch the livestream and keep a few people's kids company...

Given the snow, the sidewalks were slippery, especially in dress shoes. We had a large group- more than 30 with the various Fulbright scholars (professors), students, and Swedish Fulbright winners headed to the U.S. next year, along with assorted officials from the U.S. Embassy, Fulbright Commission Board, and Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Quite the assemblage!

As we navigated the sidewalks towards Konserthuset for the awards ceremony, I realized the street was shut down and heavy with police presence.  Onlookers turned into crowds turned into cordoned off sidewalks patrolled by police... such a strange feeling to show someone a card and be waved through when others couldn't pass. There were a few with protest signs- controversy over the 2019 literature prize to Peter Handke (more on this below).

The front of the Konserthuset was draped in lights. People were streaming into the theater from taxis and more, now more crowds outside the lines. We really didn't know what to expect, but showed our invitations (and our ids) to get in, navigated up to the cloak room, and donned fancier shoes and dropped coats. Into our seats- high on a balcony well above everything. As Chris noted, we were closer to the ceiling than the stage- but a spectacular view (and a nice post) for sure.

Outside, and inside (a few prominent seats empty just yet....)

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View of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and awesome opera singer:

A panorama of the theater: 

After a bit, the grand entrance: in came King Carl XVI Gustaf, Queen Silvia, Crown Princess Victoria, and her husband- all stood for a special song sung to the King. According to the Swedish member of the foreign ministry sitting next to me, a song not sung that often. Nice to have someone able to sing it right near me! The close up to the right is from the Fulbright Commission.

After Mozart's March in D Major, Chairman of the Board Prof. Carl-Henrik Heldin gave a surprisingly political welcome speech, stressing the importance of science, of course, but then not holding back. A notable statement: Nobel "was a strong believer in the importance of research; only on the basis of facts could the world make real progress. Sadly, Alfred Nobel's optimistic view is today being challenged all over the world and we see leading politicians who now and then deny facts. Irrational thinking and narrow minded views are gaining grounds at the expense of scientific achievements, knowledge and rational thinking." 

He kept going: "A flagrant example of what we face is lack of respect for the overwhelming evidence demonstrating that our lifestyle negatively affects our climate. When young people stand up and demand that we all listen to science and act, they deserve our support." 

Not sure what I was expecting, but not this. And not as much music. A speech, followed by music. A speech introducing the winners of the physics prize-- this time, in Swedish. Helpful to have a small book with all the speeches in English! My Swedish is not up to understanding explanations of deep space exploration, lithium ion batteries, cellular oxygen uptake, literature, or economics. 

Speech given, laureates welcomed one by one to receive their award from the King. Formal hand off of what looked like a plaque and an award. Triumphant music. Handshake. Laureate bows to the King. To the Swedish Academy. To the crowd, which claps. The King sits. The audience stops clapping. Repeat 3 times for each science prize (3 physics laureates, 3 chemistry, etc.). Intersperse each set of prizes with music: orchestra, then orchestra and opera. The King taps his foot in time to the music. The Laureates look a lot like they are trying hard to remember the steps from a wedding rehearsal. 

I look at the program- a 2018 prize in literature? I'm confused- it's 2019. And there is a 2019 prize? A Fulbright Commission board member quietly explains the massive scandal that afflicted the Swedish Academy the year before, resulting in no literature prize. Polish author Olga Tokarczuk wins the 2018 prize- a lovely speech about her. She accepts her prize from the King, who stands for a long time... the audience claps, and claps, and claps. Austrian author Peter Handke wins the 2019 prize... the King hands him his prize and almost immediately sits down. All very proper but according to the Swedes, not very subtle. 

Why the controversy? While an author, Peter Handke attended Slobodan Milosevic's funeral and has been quite public about saying that the massacres in Sarajevo were staged, along with other statements about the war in the former Yugoslavia. A number of people boycotted the ceremony, including one of the Swedish Academy members. On Tuesday, the Guardian reported that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan slammed Handke on television, saying “the Nobel has no value … granting the Nobel literature prize on Human Rights Day to a figure who denies the genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina is nothing less than rewarding human rights violations.”  Wait- what? While we saw protesters, the expectation is that there would have been more of a reaction during the ceremony itself... more perhaps, than the King sitting down quite quickly-- but perhaps that spoke volumes itself. 

The Laureates themselves have to give lectures, but they do so during separate events; all of these lectures are online (see here). In addition, the Nobel Peace Prize is given by the Norwegian Nobel Committee- per Nobel's instructions when he died. At the time, Norway was part of Sweden; Norway gained its independence in 1905. The Peace Prize Ceremony was held earlier on 10 December in Oslo-- apparently a bit less formal affair. 

Picture of the entire ensemble during a musical interlude (photo from the Fulbright Commission).

The ceremony finished with awards to the economists, more music, and an official filing out of the royalty. The members of the Swedish Academy came to greet the Laureates, and the audience headed towards the entrance... apparently quite a race for those attending the official dinner to make it across Stockholm to city hall for the very hard to get and coveted dinner tickets. Picture of Stockholm City Hall earlier on 10 December (as seen from the Parliament). 

Absolutely fascinating people watching (I wasn't taking so many pictures though). We posed for pictures and headed to our very own Fulbright dinner across the street at a thai place. 

Dinner afterwards... a great set of conversations, then home on the subway with a lot of discussion between Chris and I on our way, walking carefully back over the icy sidewalks. 

Our glamour shot at home... 

So what to think overall?

The Nobel Ceremony (and official dinner afterwards) is a pageant. It is Sweden's Royal Ball, an international celebration of research and literature, and the Grammy Awards all rolled into one. The entire event, including the 4+ hour dinner, is livestreamed. 

Want to see the dinner? See (available to watch the recording until June 2020). 

The Swedes apparently love to dress up- all of Chris' colleagues own their own tails or ballgowns. If you search "Nobel Prize," the top search result goes to Nobel Prize fashion-- and the livestream of both the ceremony and dinner featured breathless commentators going on and on about what the women were wearing (because the men were all wearing the exact. same. thing. Even the handkerchief was the same). Headlines in the news the next day were about the crown jewels... Harper's Bazaar noted that "Sweden's Royals Wore All the Tiaras at the Nobel Prize Ceremony."


Princess Victoria's outfit (black and white dress in the back) was apparently the talk of the town... (photo from the Fulbright Commission's facebook feed-- from the official dinner). 

The dinner menu is top secret, news of it covered in today's paper. The decorations apparently exquisite (example photo of Stockholm's City Hall, complete with 1200 guests, 40 cm per person).

 Image result for Nobel dinner 2019    Image result for Nobel dinner 2019
Juxtapose this breathless fashion sense with the fact that the Nobel Laureates themselves are mostly men, and have been since the prize's inception. According to an article published on Tuesday, only 19 women have won one of the Nobel prizes in one of the the science categories over the award's 118 year history.  Of these, Marie Curie received two. To be at the prize ceremony was to see the embodiment of white male privilege in the Academy-- the Swedish Academy members were mostly men. The prize winners mostly men, and mostly white- the 2018 literature prize was awarded to Olga Tokarczuk. One of the three economics prizes went to Esther Duflo. The rest were men. While there were a handful of women on stage at all, only one woman provided the introductory speech. Apparently the scandal that engulfed the Swedish Academy last year involved one member's husband being a serial sexual harasser (among other issues). The women, largely dressed in floor length gowns, were in the regular audience. 

In addition to a bias against recognizing women, or scientists of color, is perhaps what the Nobel represents-- a brilliant scientist working alone. A set of cartoons from the article above and penned by Maki Naro explains the situation and sums up my reactions well, including this panel:  

So what to think? It is a once in a lifetime experience; many Swedes have never attended. It's a brilliant pageant and spectacle. It highlights the need to keep working on diversity and inclusion at all levels, including here in Sweden where equality is such a focus. It highlights the amazing work of amazing people from all over the world. 

I'm glad we went and glad for the experience and glad for the discussions it has prompted... back to the world of research (and Santa Lucia day, more on that coming soon).