Aaron Klug’s speech at the Nobel Banquet, December 10, 1982
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I wish to express my profound gratitude for the distinction with which you have honoured me today. Ever since I heard the news of the Royal Swedish Academy’s decision, and even since arriving in Stockholm, with its flags flying and flames leaping, I have not been able to shake off a feeling of unreality. It is as though I have been cast as an actor invited to take part in a production and not quite knowing his lines. But, the ceremony today, the dignity of the proceedings, the magnificence of the surroundings, this glittering company, have made it all real. Moreover, the formality of this great occasion is combined with a friendliness and a hospitality which makes it delightfully easy to take part.
I am deeply conscious that though the Prize has been awarded to me, it is a Prize also to my field of the study of biological machinery. This field is not necessarily glamorous, nor does it often produce immediate results, but it seeks to increase our basic understanding of living processes. The work requires a moderately large investment in technological and theoretical developments and long periods of time to carry them out, without the pressure to achieve quick or short term results. This is, of course, in the gift of our fellow citizens and we very much appreciate the freedom to follow our instincts and to try to solve what we think can be solved.
People often ask what is the use of it. In a world where there are pressing problems, why doesn’t one devote one’s efforts to the practical benefits of mankind. I need only recall the answer of the great Michael Faraday, when at a public lecture he was demonstrating the production of electricity. “Of what use is your invention, Mr. Faraday?” demanded an important lady. “Madam”, he replied, “of what use is a new born child?”
If – quoting freely from François Jacob – basic science has emerged from its original, and perhaps necessary, obscurity, if the public at large has come to understand its role in the evolution of our culture and society, then this is a large part due to the manner in which you, in this country of Sweden, have interpreted and realized the will of Alfred Nobel. By their independence, by their rigorous work, the Nobel Committees have given the Prize a unique position and prestige.
The Prize has not only marked discoveries of obvious benefit to mankind, but it has also set standards of excellence in fundamental work, which may bear fruit only in the distant future. In these days, when there are constant calls for research devoted to particular ends – and, I do not wish to minimize the importance of these policies – yet there should always be left room for apparently unguided research on problems that seem to have no practical application at the time. One cannot plan for the unexpected. Human curiosity, the urge to know, is a powerful force and is perhaps the best secret weapon of all in the struggle to unravel the workings of the natural world.
It is the celebration of this spirit which, I think, formed part of the intention of Alfred Nobel and of the significance of the Prizes he has created. I am privileged and honoured to have been included. For this day, for this night, I thank you all.
Their work and discoveries range from cancer therapy and laser physics to developing proteins that can solve humankind’s chemical problems. The work of the 2018 Nobel Laureates also included combating war crimes, as well as integrating innovation and climate with economic growth. Find out more.