by Professor Bengt Samuelsson, Chairman of the Board of Directors, The Nobel Foundation. (Translation of the Swedish text.)
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen,
On behalf of the Nobel Foundation, I welcome you to the 1997 Prize Award Ceremony. I would especially like to welcome this year's laureates to the Nobel festivities in Stockholm. Along with the recipients of the Nobel Prize for efforts to promote peace, you have helped to give the Nobel Prizes the prestige and stature that they enjoy throughout the world. I congratulate you for your outstanding work. You have contributed decisively to the development of your respective fields of endeavor. I am convinced that, in a historic perspective, these advances will reflect progress in the scientific and cultural spheres.
Alfred Nobel had a great interest in social issues. The poverty and misery that he experienced during his formative years made a lasting impression on him and led to a social pathos that was radical for his age. Meanwhile he had a strong faith that technical progress in various fields would result in improved living conditions.
Scientific research constantly leads to new discoveries and new knowledge. Advances in scientific laboratories suddenly open new opportunities in areas that we can hardly imagine. Lasers, nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and semiconductor technology are examples of advances in the field of physics that have spawned a variety of applications in our daily lives. Their emergence was not the product of research motivated by these later applications, but of basic research whose simple motive was to try to understand the structure and function of nature.
Scientists often try to justify their existence and their work by describing the practical uses that their research may lead to. In this way, they encourage the general public and politicians to have unrealistic expectations and to call on scientists to solve pressing social and practical problems. This situation often leads to misunderstandings.
The late British immunologist and Nobel laureate Peter Medawar once said that "If politics is the art of the possible, research is surely the art of the soluble." As this expression indicates, both basic research and applied research have their limitations. In basic research, a discovery cannot be thought out in advance. Most of the daily work at laboratories consists of pursuing experiments to see whether our hypotheses about how things look or work stand up to reality. There is no scientific method for making discoveries.
In its early stages, research cannot be goal-oriented. And in explaining the limitations that actually exist, we have not been sufficiently clear. For example, there are limitations on the ability of basic scientific research to solve short-term societal problems related to better health, better environment or new energy sources. The result is unfulfilled expectations and a hesitation to vigorously stimulate basic scientific research.
Those countries or organizations that realize the importance of stimulating research of a basic nature will have the best long-range opportunities to reap the harvests of their research investments. As the will of Alfred Nobel indicates, Nobel fully understood the role of basic research and discoveries in developing techniques that eventually lead to a higher quality of life.
Discoveries always entail surprises, and at first we do not know what dangers may accompany a given discovery. Scientific knowledge is value-neutral, and ethical issues arise only when this knowledge is applied.
In their eagerness to disclose sensational news, the media often contribute to a lopsided view of research and its dangers. One recent example of journalism that has generated unnecessary concern, while casting suspicion on the good intentions of the research community, is Dolly the cloned sheep.
Dolly's entire genetic material originates from a single cell in a fully grown animal. Genetically speaking, she is a copy of this animal, just as an identical twin is a copy of his or her sibling. But that is where the similarity ends. The purpose of cloning a sheep is not to clone humans. There are already regulations and laws in the pipeline to prevent such a development. Meanwhile, however, the media have neglected to explain the useful applications of these scientific advances.
Researchers have now also cloned Polly, who has a human gene in her genetic material. By using this method, they hope to produce substances that can be used in treating diseases in humans.
Dolly exemplifies the need for a dialogue between researchers and the general public. This dialogue should be pursued with an international perspective and should lead to more effective rules for the utilization of scientific advances. Actually exploring ourselves and our surroundings by means of discoveries and development of new methods is very much in the public interest.
Literature occupied a central role in the life of Alfred Nobel. He regarded various literary forms of expression as opportunities to achieve a greater understanding of our own thoughts, lives and relationships with other people and our surroundings.
Nobel had an extensive library, which included important European literary works. Inspired by Shelley and Byron, he wrote poems in English as a young man. Toward the end of his life, he wrote the tragedy Nemesis. His best literary form of expression was probably the aphorism, where he often expressed himself drastically. One example is: "A recluse without books and ink is a dead man before he dies." This aphorism reinforces the impression that Nobel was not only interested in literature, but also dependent on it.
In his final will and testament, Nobel included a prize in literature. He stipulated that this prize should go to the person who had produced the most outstanding work "i idealisk rigtning." The meaning of the expression "idealisk" has been the object of many interpretations over the years.
During its first years, the selection of Nobel laureates in Literature was dominated by the Swedish Academy's permanent secretary, Carl David af Wirsén, who interpreted the above phrase in Nobel's will as meaning "of an idealistic tendency." This implied that the work of the laureate should be characterized "by genuine nobility, not merely in its presentation, but also in its perception and philosophy." Wirsén did not regard the Literature Prize as a mere literary award. However, Swedish novelist and playwright August Strindberg, a contemporary of Nobel and Wirsén, emphatically rejected Wirsén's reading of "idealisk" as meaning "idealistic" in the spirit of the Swedish philosopher Christopher Jacob Boström.
In his book The Nobel Prize in Literature: A Study of the Criteria behind the Choices, Academy member Kjell Espmark wrote: "Indeed, the history of the literature prize is in some ways a series of attempts to interpret an imprecisely worded will." And in an essay on the Literature Prize, Lars Gyllensten, a former permanent secretary of the Academy, declared that one must refrain from attempting a detailed analysis of the phrase in question. He added that "it suffices to say that the serious, high quality literature that can be considered for a Prize generally furthers our knowledge of mankind and the human condition and strives to enrich our lives and improve the conditions under which we live."
Sture Allén, permanent secretary of the Academy, recently analyzed the expression "idealisk" in Nobel's will from a philological standpoint. He also obtained the help of a forensic expert, because the word "idealisk" is the result of a change that Nobel made in his handwritten will. The conclusion, based on the linguistic usage of that era, is that Nobel's expression "i idealisk rigtning" means "in a direction toward an ideal" or "in an ideal-oriented direction." The delineation of this ideal is determined, in turn, by the basic criterion that applies to all the Nobel Prizes: its benefit to mankind. According to Allén, the English translation of "idealisk" should therefore be "ideal" and not "idealistic," the term used in the first official translation of the will.
Allén concluded by saying that "once an idea has been formed of how this issue appeared to Nobel, it is up to each generation to decide how the literature of the day meets his criterion. It is perhaps not evident that Nobel himself would have seen Samuel Beckett's work the way we do, to mention but one example. And seen from our perspective, it is possible that the first Nobel Laureate's name might have been different."
Today, as we award the Literature Prize and the other Prizes, it is with gratitude that we remember Alfred Nobel, his life achievements and his visionary will. This document laid the foundation for the prestige and the stimulation of advances for the benefit of mankind that the Nobel Prizes symbolize.
From Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes 1997, Editor Tore Frängsmyr, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 1998
Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1998