Opening Address – 1998

by Professor Bengt Samuelsson, Chairman of the Board of Directors, The Nobel Foundation. (Translation of the Swedish text.)

Your Majesties, Your Royal Highness, Ladies and Gentlemen,

On behalf of the Nobel Foundation, I welcome you to the 1998 Prize Award Ceremony. I would especially like to welcome this year’s laureates and their families to the Nobel festivities in Stockholm. The laureates have made out-standing contributions in many important fields. They have also added to the esteem and prestige enjoyed by the Nobel Prizes. In Oslo earlier today, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to John Hume and David Trimble for their contributions to resolving the conflict in Northern Ireland.

When Alfred Nobel wanted his will and testament to promote activities that would confer the greatest benefit on mankind, he selected three fields of natural science – physics, chemistry and medicine – but also literature and efforts to promote peace. Many people have wondered why Nobel combined literature with science. Was it because of his great interest in literature, which has been documented in many ways, or because he realized the importance of literature in people’s ability to understand themselves and the world around them?

If we search for common factors that characterize both the best scientists and the best writers, the concept of creativity immediately comes to mind. When writers use their imagination and creative powers, they are mainly limited by their own norms, although the perceptions of those around them may also play a role. However, the work of scientific researchers must create a picture of nature that is true to the greatest possible extent. These researchers are carefully watched by their scientific colleagues. Winston Churchill put it differently: “In science you don’t need to be polite, you merely have to be right.”

The creative talent of writers and scientists is a never-ending source of fascination – but it also raises more general questions: What is creativity? How can we best promote it?

These are questions that affect us all. Global economic growth is dependent on new innovations. Social and political developments demand constantly new solutions. These questions also span a broad range of endeavors. Politicians debate what science policy will be the most conducive to creative development work. Corporate executives discuss the creative company. And what is the best way to achieve a fruitful collaboration between universities and the business community? How shall we stimulate creativity among the students at our universities and schools?

When we try to analyze the concept of creativity, the question of the origins of creativity immediately arises: does creativity arise from one’s own personality, or from the milieus where an individual is educated and works? More generally, we may ask ourselves what is more important to the creative process: the individual’s own qualifications and abilities, or the milieu in which he or she works?

History reveals many examples of creative environments, among them Athens around 400 BC, Florence in the Renaissance, and fin-de-siècle Vienna. During the 20th century, certain universities and laboratories have generated remarkably more Nobel laureates than other similar milieus. Why? What is it about the structure and culture of these milieus that stimulates fresh thinking and creativity? The qualities that are generally cited to characterize these milieus are scientific, cultural and ethnic diversity; lack of hierarchy; and far-sighted research directors who dare to invest in new research fields, who recognize talented people and who give them the necessary support and freedom. Close, informal interaction between individuals with different backgrounds, all working intensively on the same problems, also seems to be important. We have insufficient knowledge of how creative milieus arise. This is unfortunate in an age when new universities and research institutions are continuously coming into existence.

It is as important to study individual creativity as it is to study the role of collective efforts and of the milieu. Does scientific creativity have any common denominators, aside from the vague concept of intuition? Sometimes successful researchers are people who look at things that many others have seen before, but see them in a new way or discover previously unsuspected correlations. They may be iconoclasts who dare to challenge orthodoxy, step across established boundaries and question generally acknowledged truths. The writer Arthur Koestler perhaps came close to the essence of individual creativity when he pointed to the talent not only to associate within a linear norm system, but also to move freely between different frames of reference – a talent that Koestler referred to as bisociation. Louis Pasteur had an important recipe for success – not only his familiar words that “chance favors only the prepared mind,” but above all his motto: “il faut travailler”, you have to work.

Alfred Nobel was a cosmopolitan, who was constantly travelling between his companies in various places around Europe. It is therefore not surprising that Nobel museums are popping up like mushrooms from the European soil as we approach the year 2001, the 100th anniversary of the first Nobel Prizes. Major temporary exhibitions during the centennial year are also being planned at the Deutsches Museum in Munich and Bonn, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., the British Library in London and elsewhere.

The Nobel Foundation intends to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Nobel Prizes with a Centennial Exhibition of its own. It will first be displayed in Stockholm for one year, then it will be sent on an international tour – all as a first step in the establishment of a permanent Nobel Museum in Stockholm.

However, the Foundation’s Centennial Exhibition of the Nobel Prize 1901-2001 will center neither on Alfred Nobel nor on the advances in the various fields represented by the Prizes. Instead, the aim is that the exhibition will focus on the concept of creativity – as exemplified by Nobel Prizes awarded during the preceding one hundred years. The exhibition will pose the question: What is more important for progress: individual creativity or the existence of creative milieus? It is our hope that the exhibition will enrich and intensify discussions of this important question. Thanks to broad support from research councils and foundations, as well as from certain Swedish companies, we are mobilizing extensive national and international expertise in the task of producing this exhibition.

The history of the Nobel Prizes can tell us about intellectual accomplishments in a wide range of fields. By looking at the Prizes in a historical perspective, we can understand how various fields of science have developed over nearly one century. Hopefully, the most important milestones in this process have been honored with Nobel Prizes.

The following aphorism has been ascribed to the physicist Sir Isaac Newton, although he was not the one who originally coined the expression: “If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” This aphorism underscores the importance of the cultural base that exists at the time of a discovery. By choosing this year’s Nobel laureates, the prize awarding institutions have identified the “giants” on whose shoulders the next generation of pioneers will stand.

From Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes 1998, Editor Tore Frängsmyr, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 1999

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1999

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