Opening Address – 2011



Speech by Dr Marcus Storch, Chairman of the Board of the Nobel Foundation, 10 December 2011.

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

On behalf of the Nobel Foundation, I would like to welcome you to this year’s Nobel Prize Award Ceremony. I would especially like to welcome the Laureates and their families to this ceremony, whose purpose is to honour the Laureates and their contributions to science and literature.

It was with deep sadness that we at the Nobel Foundation received the news of Professor Ralph Steinman‘s death only two days before the Nobel Assembly’s decision on this year’s Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

We are grateful to Mrs Claudia Steinman that she wished to come here in order to honour the memory of her husband.

Earlier today in Oslo the Peace Prize Laureates – Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkol Karman – were honoured “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work”.

For large portions of the world’s population, the past few decades have brought a substantial improvement in their living conditions.

Despite these largely positive developments, humanity faces major challenges. We are all aware of our environmental problems and issues related to our future energy supply. Poverty remains widespread. About one billion people are still living under highly adverse conditions. In industrialised countries there are also many problems with weak economic growth, with unrest among segments of the population that have benefited little from increased prosperity and with ageing populations. On top of this are today’s acute problems caused by financial crisis and the build-up of debt that has occurred on both sides of the Atlantic in recent decades.

In order to deal with these challenges and find solutions to the issues we face, we need at least as much help from science as before. It is therefore not surprising that new attempts are being made – time after time, and in country after country – to stimulate science and innovation. But the results of these attempts are mixed. It boils down to individuals, and how to give them the space and the stimulus that they need in order to deal with the unknown.

How, then can we capture the Firebird that is creativity? Even now, I can forewarn today’s Laureates that they will be receiving numerous invitations to all kinds of conferences, seminars, symposia, colloquia and dialogues on this theme. All too often, their focus is on social events and social visibility, instead of on substantive analytic discussion. One earlier Laureate coined a pertinent expression for this type of event: “Nobel nonsense”.

If we wish to discuss what factors promote creativity at the individual level, a study of Alfred Nobel’s biography offers a number of useful ideas. Let me mention five areas.

First, a home environment that is study-oriented, with a pronounced interest in some current field of activity. For many years Immanuel Nobel, Alfred’s father, had been interested and active in explosives technology. He more or less insistently passed this interest on to his son, who had actually intended to pursue a more romantic, literary career. In addition, Alfred Nobel absorbed an entrepreneurial culture, inspired by his father’s many-facetted activities. His father’s bankruptcies also taught him to combine entrepreneurship with financial caution and control.

Second, good schooling. In Nobel’s case, one might say that strong talent was combined with what we would consider an extreme solution to the four Nobel brothers’ schooling needs. Since foreign children were not allowed to attend Russia schools in 1840s St. Petersburg, they instead received their instruction from university teachers at home. This highly teacher-intensive school – somewhat reminiscent of the instruction once given to future monarchs – also produced outstanding results: in Alfred’s case, a fundamental knowledge of natural science and the humanities as well as a fluent spoken and written mastery of five languages. Later in his life, this knowledge obviously made it easier for Nobel to develop his business operations in various countries. At the end of his life, he had holdings in 94 production facilities in 20 countries and was thus a pioneer in the build-up of an international corporate group. Obviously it is not possible to design today’s school system to resemble the conditions under which Nobel grew up. This does not prevent us from doing more to ensure a good school system. If we don’t have sufficiently good teachers, and if they are not encouraged to improve their instruction and their professional role, certainly no other school reforms will help. The public sector must provide clear directives about what the schools should achieve. Also needed are leaders – in plain language, headmasters or principals – who are capable of running a school with pedagogical ambitions. The right people must also be encouraged to become teachers, and teachers who make an effort, undergo professional development and achieve results must be rewarded. A well-functioning school system is a necessary foundation for the development of society and the freedom of the individual.
Third, growing up and living in a cosmopolitan environment. At that time, St. Petersburg was populated by a sizeable group of expatriates from various European countries, who were attracted by the opportunities that the fast-growing Russian capital offered. The intellectual fertility of cosmopolitan environments is a well-established phenomenon in human history, starting with Hellenism’s fruitful tolerance of different cultures. Successful centres of learning from the Renaissance through our own era were and are cosmopolitan. Examples of these today are the foremost universities of Europe – among them Cambridge, Oxford and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich. At best, nationalism and chauvinism in the intellectual field only lead to a country’s isolation, weakening and decline; at worst, to more disastrous consequences, as witnessed by 20th century European history. In today’s society, what the cosmopolitan environment in St. Petersburg gave Nobel can also be achieved through intensified exchanges of students and researchers with other countries – especially by creating better conditions for researchers to come and work in different environments, in the same way as prominent researchers are attracted to American universities.    

Fourth, it is necessary to be in contact with the frontiers of research. In Nobel’s case his chemistry teacher in St. Petersburg, Nikolai Zinin, was not only a very prominent chemist and later president of the Russian Chemical Society, but also had outstanding international contacts among some of the great scientists of his age, following his studies in Berlin, Paris and London. One of these was France’s leading chemist, Jules Pelouze, who in turn had had an Italian student, Ascanio Sobrero, whose research had led to the discovery of a new substance called nitroglycerine. And the goal of making this highly explosive substance safe to handle became Nobel’s goal. There was never any doubt that Sobrero was responsible for the basic research and discovered nitroglycerine. Nobel’s view of the matter is illustrated, among other things, by the wording in his will: if the criteria for physics are “discovery or invention”, those for chemistry are “discovery or improvement”. Sobrero discovered and Nobel improved.

Fifth, one must have time and patience. In Nobel’s case, it took many years and great efforts before he finally arrived at the solution: dynamite – in which nitroglycerine is stabilised with a form of sand, making the product safe to handle when combined with a detonator, which in turn was something that Nobel had invented.

These five aspects of Nobel’s biography provide guidance about what is crucial when it comes to stimulating and securing a growth-oriented, knowledge-based society.

It is important to ensure that all the efforts we make to support innovation do not make us forget basic research, whose share of our total investments has recently declined. Creative research is long-term, original and difficult to plan. It must therefore be allowed to operate under conditions that suit its nature. Without Sobrero’s basic research and his discovery, Nobel would not have been able to improve nitroglycerine into dynamite, nor would Nobel have been able to make another of his inventions, and perhaps his most lasting: the Nobel Prize. This is one of countless examples of the unpredictable but far-reaching impact of basic research. The history of the Nobel Prize is largely the history of basic discoveries that have altered the human condition in a fundamental way.
When Nobel wrote his will, he made a decisive contribution to stimulating science and rationality. Better than most people, he understood the value of science in improving the human condition. A clear expression of his insightfulness is that he also emphasised the value of humanism and the need to work towards peace. These are important aspects in managing the challenges of today. The same is true of his internationalism: the way he emphasised that it should be possible to award the Prize to anyone, regardless of nationality.

Let me close by telling about one of the many meetings with Laureates that I have had the privilege of attending in recent years: a cup of tea last spring with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Before we had a chance to welcome him, he began speaking. What he wanted to underscore was the continued relevance and power of Nobel’s message, as well as the integrity and independence that have guided the prize-awarding institutions over the years. Continuing to do so – highlighting and rewarding the things Alfred Nobel stood for, and doing so even in times and in countries where his ideas are controversial – is our way of preserving the heritage of Alfred Nobel. 

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 2011

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