Adam Smith, Chief Scientific Officer at Nobel Prize Outreach.

Nobel Media. Photo: Adam Smyth

“All we’re trying to do is get a glimpse into this person’s life at this amazing moment”

Every year Adam Smith has the important job of calling new laureates after they have found out that they have been awarded the Nobel Prize. We have released a special podcast episode featuring Smith speaking about his very exciting but sometimes difficult task. Listen to the full episode here:

In addition to the podcast episode, read some of his answers below.

Since 2006 you’ve had the task of interviewing the new Nobel Prize laureates right after they’ve been given the news that they have been awarded the prize. How did this become your job?

I have absolutely no idea [laughs]. I came to the Nobel organisation in an odd way, in that my dad told me once that I shouldn’t worry about what kind of career I was going to have, because someone would offer me a job in a pub one day. I sort of went through life believing this, and it never happened. Later on I realised that he himself never went to pubs so he probably didn’t know what went on in there. But then I was having lunch with the director who is a friend, and we were just talking about things in general, and somehow that turned into writing a report on some editorial things for Nobel. And then I found myself working for them. And then, again over lunch, somebody said, “Why don’t you do these announcement interviews… it doesn’t always work [with a journalist]. So why don’t you pick up the phone on the announcement days and see if you can get them?”. So that’s how it began, and I don’t seem to have looked back since then.

How much do you prepare for these talks?

You can’t really prepare much. The laureates themselves are pretty unprepared so it’s two unprepared people talking to each other. You don’t really need to prepare because what you are reacting to is their happiness and the citation which tells you what the prize is for, and then just, I suppose, finding out how they feel about the moment.

Do you ever get nervous before a call?

I suppose it’s never nice speaking to somebody if you feel you’ve really going to have nothing to say at all about their topic. If I don’t know the person at all, and they work on something that is way outside my… if you call it expertise, then that would make me nervous. So perhaps some of the literature laureates. You might wonder, what is the conversation going to be about, when you connect with them. They don’t turn around and say “well, have you read all my books?”, but if they did you’d be a bit exposed. I suppose in the earlier days I thought I ought to give a better showing of myself, so I tried to ask them sensible questions. I remember Orhan Pamuk listening patiently to my questions and answering them and saying, “Right, now I’ve been a very good boy and I’ve done my homework so maybe you can let me go now.” [laughs] So I learnt from that that maybe you don’t need to – it’s just a quick conversation, just mundane, capturing the moment. All we’re trying to do is get a glimpse into this person’s life at this amazing moment.

Which phone call has made the most lasting impression on you?

Goodness, that’s a big question. There have been so many. Well, the first thing to say is that they are not really calls that generally generate anything of enough importance to make a lasting impression, because they’re so ephemeral. You know, we don’t tend to go into any depth. It’s really just the reaction of a person. Sometimes you really feel you know the person in a different way afterwards, you probably didn’t know them at all beforehand, but if it happens to be someone you’ve encountered before, then you learn something new. But most of the time it’s not giving you anything particularly momentous to know as a result of it. One call that does come to mind, an early call in my career – the one with chemistry laureate Roger Kornberg. The reason that that was so memorable is that we always transcribe these calls – it’s quite interesting because actually when you’re speaking to somebody, you don’t think very much about the way they talk to you. If they repeat themselves or stutter or speak in a broken way, you tend not to analyse that as you’re having the conversation. And then when you come to listen and transcribe, you then do look at the way that they talk. When I transcribed Roger Kornberg’s call, I found that absolutely no polishing was necessary at all, he speaks in, or spoke on that call, in precise, perfect sentences. I think he’s the only laureate I’ve ever known do that, probably the only person I’ve known do that. I cannot begin to imagine what kind of brain can, in that moment of just having heard the news, be so collected as to deliver nicely complicated words, in a perfect sequence. I just marvel at that mind that can do that. He’s also a lovely man and the son of a Nobel Prize laureate himself, he’s Arthur Kornberg‘s son.

In a lot of the interviews you’re waking people up in the middle of the night, or they’ve been woken by the news and then you call them and it’s still 3 o’clock in the morning where they are. How do you think that influences the conversations?

Well, for a start, it’s embarrassing calling people in the middle of the night. I mean I was taught not to phone people when it’s night. I don’t want to disturb people and you are disturbing people! And ok, it’s probably a safe bet that the household has woken up if they’ve heard the news, but it’s not certain, and you don’t actually know whether they’ve heard the news. So sometimes you run the risk of waking them up to tell them the news, which I suppose would be okay – it’s quite a fun call to record if that happens. And you certainly catch people off their guard. I’m not really pushing them to say anything that they wouldn’t want to say at another time. But again, it’s just down to their personality. It’s just listening to them in that rather exposed moment and getting to know them quite quickly because of the way they react. There are so many… There are as many variations as there are laureates. 

Many laureates speak about the support they receive from family and friends. Would you say that these calls highlight the importance of family?

I suppose it’s the unspoken truth behind the Nobel Prize, or one of the truths: that there’s so often a huge support network, or certainly a person giving great support to the person who’s done the great work. In the conversations you hear between laureates and students all over the world that we organise and others organise, the laureates talk about how much they depend on having things taken off their hands by their partners or their families. It’s almost inconceivable that you can work as hard as you need to or be as productive as you need to, without having a lot of help. But of course it’s not in the forefront, it’s very much in the background – but it’s there, very clearly. I think that you have to be very lucky for that to happen, that somehow things fall out, that people will do that for you. I do know laureates who have done it all themselves, who have been single parents, who have brought up their children, done all their work, cared for their families, cared for others, and somehow managed to bring it all together – and boy, they must be efficient!

How do you feel after making one of these calls?

I’m always elated to get them, because it’s not necessarily easy to get somebody of the telephone. People are normally in their office or at home but they could be anywhere else, so you have to track them down. So I suppose part of it is just the relief that I’ve managed to get the call recorded and we’ve got another one done. Depending on where they fall in the sequence, if there are more laureates in one day, it’s also the kind of immediate switch of mind to getting the next call done. So brief happiness, relief and then, perhaps, move on to the next one, fast.

You said that you don’t really prepare for the calls, but will you prepare in any way for the new calls this upcoming October?

I think Larry King, the American interviewer, said his advice to people who’d written a book was, “Don’t read the book”. There’s wisdom in that. It’s okay to go in just being inquisitive. There’s not much you can do, it’s just – how do you prepare for the unknown? You just hope that you don’t feel too dull on the day so that your brain is working when you finally connect. I think one of the funny things about those calls is the waiting before the doing. Often you really have to pursue that person, and so you’re dialing the same number an awful lot of times. If that’s the case, after a while you begin to get a bit tired, bored, drowsy. Ring-ring, ring-ring. Been sitting here for a while waiting. And suddenly there they are and you have to be sparky, you have to suddenly switch on. So I just hope I can do that again.

First published September 2021

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