Speech by Dr Marcus Storch, Chairman of the Board of the Nobel Foundation, 10 December 2012.
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.
Earlier today in Oslo, the Peace Prize Laureate – the European Union – was honoured. “The union and its forerunners have for over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.”
The basis of the Nobel Prize and the Nobel Foundation is the will that Alfred Nobel signed at the Swedish-Norwegian Club in Paris on November 27, 1895. Nobel’s will specifies what prizes shall be awarded, what criteria shall apply to each prize area – they vary somewhat – under the general heading “the greatest benefit to mankind” – which institutions were intended to be responsible for each respective prize, how the capital should be managed and what individuals, in their capacity as executors of the will, should carry out the intentions of the testator.
One complication is that Nobel, who had a general aversion to lawyers, had not sought advice from any of them, and thus neglected to name a beneficiary of the capital that would finance the prize. After three years of negotiations, the executors of the will managed to overcome the resistance and scepticism originally found here in Stockholm – in Christiania (present-day Oslo), the Storting or Norwegian Parliament had quickly realised the potential of the prize and accepted its role in Nobel’s plan. It thereby became possible to create a beneficiary retroactively, in the form of the Nobel Foundation, which was established in 1900 with an accompanying set of statutes. Since 1901 the Nobel Prizes have been awarded, with some interruptions, mainly due to world wars.
The tasks of the Nobel Foundation are to oversee the principles outlined in Alfred Nobel’s will, to finance the Nobel Prizes and the prize adjudication work that each respective prize-awarding institution is responsible for and to organise the annual ceremony that we are participating in right now. The Foundation’s Board of Directors is also responsible for ensuring that the general rules regarding the nominations and the prize adjudication work are observed, that self-nominations are not considered and that “no appeals may be made against the decision of a prize-awarding body”.
From the very beginning, the Nobel Prize attracted significant international attention, probably above all because it was the first explicitly international prize in the intellectual field, in an era when the Olympic Games had recently been revived after a 1,500-year pause. The Nobel Prize thus came to be perceived as a kind of intellectual Olympiad.
The choice of Nobel Prize areas opens up a broad spectrum of perspectives on nature and humanity. This includes laws and forces that govern our material world, how this world is built from different components and the diversity of life processes in different organisms. It includes how human beings have described their surroundings and their inner lives, and how they have tried to overcome conflicts. The Nobel Prize’s combination of scientific subjects, literature and peace makes it unique.
From the beginning, one important task of the Foundation has been its responsibility for providing overall information about the Nobel Prize. The Foundation’s informational activities reflect the evolution of society and technology over the past century. Until the Second World War this information essentially consisted of press releases, which were provided to local news agencies and then cabled onward to the press in the so called “civilised world”. Once a year, the Foundation published an elegant yearbook entitled Les Prix Nobel.
Then by way of the mimeograph, with its special fragrance, and the life-saving but often messy Tippex, we progressed to the fax machine. But the real revolution in the informational field occurred with the arrival of the Internet. As early as 1994, the Nobel Committee for Physiology or Medicine began posting information on the Internet. Today the official website of the Nobel Prize, Nobelprize.org, has more than 45 million visitors per year. With the new technologies that are available, our potential for reaching out to the world with new programme ideas in the spirit of the Nobel Prize is almost infinite.
Meanwhile the Nobel Prize website is a unique resource for tracing important trends in the history of our civilisation. A number of Nobel Laureates have said that they advise their students to study the biographies of Laureates and the accompanying articles as one way of gaining an overview of developments in their respective fields of research. The home countries of our Internet visitors reveal the intellectual globalisation process. At first, North America was strongly dominant, but in recent years Asia in particular has increased its share of the rising total number of website visitors.
In 2001, a Nobel Museum opened in Stockholm’s Old Town. A few years later – in 2005 when the 100th anniversary of the peaceful dissolution of the union between Sweden and Norway was commemorated – a new museum was inaugurated in Oslo.
Both museums have hosted a continuously increasing number of visitors. At the same time, they have served as a base for the development of travelling exhibitions that have been seen by millions of people around the world. One important step in the Foundation’s museum activities, after many years of discussions, is that we have succeeded in involving not only the City of Stockholm but also the Government of Sweden and private interests to join us in building a permanent museum with enough space both for the museum and for the Foundation’s other activities. This is very welcome, since the current museum in Stockholm has outgrown its premises.
This year we have taken a new initiative by launching the Nobel Week Dialogue. Top-level scientists meet representatives of the rest of society in a dialogue about a current theme. This year’s theme is genetics, because 50 years have passed since the Nobel Prize was awarded for the discovery of DNA.
Informational activities on the present-day scale go beyond what is required of the Foundation, based on its statutes. Obviously they will not be paid for with money that Alfred Nobel left behind. This is why these activities are carried out by separate legal entities, but under the control of the Nobel Foundation.
The achievements that have been rewarded with the Nobel Prize provide a many-facetted illustration of the various subject areas and the connection between them. Discoveries, inventions, literary works and efforts to achieve peace that have received Nobel Prizes have both directly and indirectly been of decisive importance to everyday human life. They open up opportunities to illustrate the preconditions and driving forces behind creative work, and they challenge those forces in some parts of the world that question the value of humanism, science and rationality.
The history of the Nobel Prize is an ongoing story, which is extended every year by new achievements and human destinies. The activities of the Nobel Foundation also look ahead at future developments. By highlighting the importance of earlier achievements, together with issues that are vital and urgent today, we can contribute to knowledge and perseverance. In this way, we can help confer “the greatest benefit to mankind”, entirely in the spirit of Alfred Nobel.
Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 2012