Opening address – 2001

The Nobel Prize Award Ceremony 2001

Speech by Professor Bengt Samuelsson, Chairman of the Board of Directors, The Nobel Foundation

Professor Bengt Samuelsson

Professor Bengt Samuelsson
Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 2001
Photo: Hans Mehlin

Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Honoured Nobel Laureates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

On behalf of the Nobel Foundation, I want to welcome all of you to this Prize Award Ceremony and Nobel Prize Centennial celebration. I would especially like to welcome this year’s Laureates and their families. I would like to congratulate you on your outstanding contributions, which have helped to increase collective human knowledge in your respective fields. I would also like to welcome all the pre-2001 Laureates who have responded to our invitation and who, by their presence today – both here and at the Nobel Ceremony in Oslo – are helping to give the Nobel Prize Centennial an altogether special dimension. Earlier today the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded in Oslo to Kofi Annan and the United Nations.

This year’s Prize Award Ceremony opens up an almost vertiginous perspective, since we are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the first Prize Award Ceremonies in Stockholm and in Christiania, as Oslo was known in 1901. The prizes in 1901 to Röntgen, van’t Hoff, von Behring, Prudhomme, Dunant and Passy marked the beginning of a chain of Nobel Prizes for contributions that have assumed the nature of milestones in the development of our civilization over the past century. The Nobel Prizes and the Nobel Laureates have become symbols of a noble ambition to improve the circumstances of our earthly life by pursuing science toward new frontiers, deepening and broadening the literary reflection of our existential condition and promoting peaceful solutions to the conflicts that seem to be the fate of mankind.

This perspective on the Nobel Prize has been traced in numerous ways as we have approached this Centennial. The Nobel Foundation itself has organized a Centennial Exhibition in two copies: one of them being displayed in Stockholm, and one that will be shown in numerous venues around the world after it has been displayed in Oslo during the second half of 2001. The Foundation’s site in the virtual world of the Internet has been transformed into a powerful interactive E-Museum that fulfils educational duties.

The 100th anniversary of the Nobel Prize has also been celebrated in a number of venues worldwide. From California to New York, Toronto, Paris, Copenhagen, Taiwan and Seoul, various kinds of events have been organized to honour the contributions of the Nobel Laureates. And last but not least, both the specialized press and other media have devoted very extensive coverage to the Nobel Prize.

In the scientific fields for which they are awarded, the Nobel Prizes can be said to comprise a description of the scientific history of each respective field over the past hundred years. This history often involves a process in which one discovery paves the way for the next. One of the great events in biology and medicine this year, the mapping of the human genomic structure, is a clear example of how the Nobel Prizes reflect the course of history. The final map of the genome came into existence through a gigantic global effort at many laboratories. The scientific basis for this effort consisted of a number of discoveries made over a long period, but especially during the so-called biological revolution of the past half century. In most cases, those who made these discoveries have been awarded Nobel Prizes. A number of these Laureates are here today.

There is also reason to remind ourselves of the driving forces and values that led Alfred Nobel to make what was perhaps his most important invention: the Prize that bears his name. The roots of this idea can be found both in his biography and in the values and world view he developed.

Alfred Nobel’s formative years and education were probably the most appropriate ones imaginable for the adoption of a cosmopolitan approach to life. He grew up in a rich St. Petersburg where different nationalities and cultures mixed, but where science and literature developed in a dynamic interaction between Western European tradition and the aspirations of the Russian intelligentsia. This is where Alfred Nobel learned five languages fluently, discovered world literature and mastered the fundamentals of mathematics, physics and chemistry. His subsequent career took him to the United States and France, back to Stockholm, then on to Germany, Scotland, and again France, where he acquired a permanent residence in Paris, then spent the last years of his life in San Remo, Italy. Asked where he lived, Nobel – who devoted a very large proportion of his time to business travel – replied that “home is where I work and I work everywhere.”

Given the knowledge of Alfred Nobel’s values and philosophical arguments, it is easier to understand the background of the Nobel Prize. We have a rather good knowledge of Nobel’s interest in philosophy, based not only on his extensive library but also on the notes he wrote while reading the great philosophers, from Plato and Aristotle onward. Among those he commented upon particularly and approvingly were the philosophical representatives of rationalism, such as Descartes and that forerunner of the Enlightenment, the uniquely free-thinking Spinoza. As to their questioning of prevailing doctrines, Nobel noted that doubt has to be the starting point for all philosophical thinking. He was well acquainted with Voltaire. While still in St. Petersburg, he had improved his French by translating Voltaire into Swedish and then back into French. In this tradition we also find Auguste Comte, whose doctrine of positivism describes social development as a series of different sociological stages from the theological and the metaphysical, toward an order based on science and industrialization – a new order that Nobel himself actively contributed to.

It is well known that on social issues, Nobel held radical views. He characterized himself as a social democrat. However, the socialist views that he espoused probably did not have so much to do with the First or Second International, but instead were related to the romantically colored Utopian socialism of the early 19th century, which his literary idol Shelley had embraced. Shelley’s critical, not to say subversive cultural radicalism, like his pacifism, were echoed in many of Nobel’s comments and arguments. Of the other great 19th century writers, who are richly represented in Nobel’s library, symptomatically it was Leo Tolstoy and Victor Hugo who – with their idealism, pacifism and social compassion – seem to have been closest to him. Nobel, incidentally, became part of Hugo’s social circle in Paris. It is possible that it was precisely this kind of literature that Nobel was referring to when he stated, as a criterion for the Prize in Literature, that a work should be “in an ideal direction.”

This kaleidoscopic overview of Alfred Nobel’s philosophy and values shows that he based his world view on a critical scientific rationalism, combined with an idealism based on humanism, social compassion and hope for a more peaceful future. And it was probably these values that led him to develop such seething creative activity. It was also these central values of modern Western culture that clearly inspired the purposes of the Nobel Prizes, and that are reflected in the fields and criteria that Alfred Nobel stated in his will. Each year’s Nobel Prize winning contributions can therefore be regarded as another annual ring on the verdant tree of humanism, and these humanist values will be just as valid and necessary in the future as they have been over the past century.

From Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes 2001, Editor Tore Frängsmyr, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 2002

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 2002

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