Richard R. Ernst’s speech at the Nobel Banquet, December 10, 1991
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is indeed a great moment for me to stand where I am standing to express my deep gratitude to the Nobel Foundation for this extraordinary honor. Obviously, most of the glory should fall on those standing behind me, my teachers, my colleagues, my coworkers, my school, my 700 years old country, those whom I represent here as their scientific spokesman. The presence of all the former Nobel Laureates gives me a feeling of being carried by a swarm of wild geese, some real high fliers, like in Nils Holgersson, and I am afraid of falling down.
Science prizes have a tendency to distort science history. Individuals are singled out and glorified that should rather be seen embedded in the context of the historic development. Much luck and coincidence is needed to be successful and be selected. Prizes can hardly do justice to those brave men and women who devote, in an unselfish way, all their efforts and energy towards a goal that is finally reached by others.
True, science prizes are extremely important for maintaining the esteem of science, to motivate young people to follow the footsteps of scientists who provide the foundation of our society, who show ways how to solve the problems into which mankind seems to be running, especially if we allow for further unlimited growth of the most destructive but also most remarkable living species on earth. Scientific endeavours with their positive and negative aspects are an integral part of humanity. We are forced to live with them whether we want or not and try to make the best out of it. But, we have also to accept the concerns of those who rather see the threatening aspects of science, that merely put into evidence the threatening side of the human nature.
I am one of the very fortunate scientists who have achieved what many claim to be the ultimate form of recognition or even the ultimate form of happiness in this exuberant, splendid, almost unearthly setting. However, I think more important is the responsibility that is being loaded on the shoulders of the laureates who are supposed to suddenly behave like unfailing sages although they might have been just work addicts in the past. The disproportionate importance that is attributed to the Nobel Prize is reflected also in disproportionate expectations from the public. Recently, I got a set of letters, written by school children from Bedford, Massachusetts, one of them begging me to work hard towards an artificial ozone layer to protect life on earth. I hope that I can live up to a few of these very high expectations and I ask you already now for indulgence in your future judgments. With this hope, I would like to close and to thank you for your very kind attention.