Luis Alvarez

Banquet speech

Luis Alvarez’ speech at the Nobel Banquet in Stockholm, December 10, 1968

Your Majesty. Your Royal Highnesses, your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen:

I learned much of the physics I know from two men who preceded me to this banquet table – Arthur Compton and Ernest Lawrence. Because Ernest Lawrence’s award came in the war years, I had the unusual opportunity of attending his Nobel Prize presentation ceremony. The Swedish Ambassador to our country came to California to represent his King. I remember the pleasure and satisfaction I had in hearing my friend and Laboratory director mention some of my own work, that had contributed in small measure to the broad picture of Ernest Lawrence’s great influence on modern physics.

One indicator of Ernest Lawrence’s influence is the fact that I am the eighth member of his laboratory staff to receive the highest award that can come to a scientist – the Nobel Prize. I am deeply grateful to the Royal Swedish Academy of Science for judging me worthy to be associated in this way with my esteemed colleagues, and with the other distinguished physicists who have sat at this table in years past.

I am particularly happy that a number of my young colleagues are here tonight to share with me the great recognition that our joint efforts over the years has just been accorded. We all appreciate that the Prize must be given to a person, rather than to a group, but we are all honest enough with each other to understand just how much of a group effort our work really was. I was afraid that this knowledge might be a sort of private secret between us, so I was delighted to hear my old friend Sten von Friesen refer this afternoon to “a whole series of discoveries made by Alvarez’ group in Berkeley”. That is the way I remember it, and because of my previous experience at the ceremony in Berkeley almost thirty years ago, I feel particularly close to my colleagues assembled here tonight.

In addition to my teachers and my colleagues, I would like to mention one other person who shares equally in the responsibility for my presence here tonight. Janet Landis came to work in my group in the summer of 1957 when our first bubble-chamber was churning out its earliest pictures. She scanned and measured the photographs, she operated the computer, and she later trained and supervised the people who did that work. Almost exactly ten years ago, she left the Laboratory to become my wife. Since then, she has rearranged our living room every Monday night to entertain forty of my young associates who arrive on schedule for our weekly seminar. She has provided the warmth and understanding that a scientist needs to tide him over the periods of frustration and despair that seem to be part of our way of life. I know it is an old Swedish custom that a man must Skål his wife at a banquet under penalty of dire consequences for failure. So with your permission, I will now Skål my Jan.

M. Alvarez’ Address to the University Students on the Evening of December 10, 1968

Students of Stockholm: I am pleased to have the honor of speaking to you briefly tonight. Before I left Berkeley last week, several of my friends who had attended this ceremony told me that one of this year’s Laureates would be given the honor of addressing the assembled students, but they all said I could forget about it – one of the younger men would be chosen. So when I was singled out, I tried to reconcile this fact with what my friends had told me. I then remembered there are many measures of age, for example, the number of years a person has lived, the useful diameter of his arteries, and the activity of his brain cells. The only criterion I could think of that could label me as the youngest Laureate was that I have the youngest child – my wife and I had to leave our one year old daughter at home with her grandmother.

Before replying to the speech that your representative has just given, I must say that I am highly skeptical that you really are students. I am from Berkeley, California, so as I look at you in your formal evening clothes, you can appreciate how disturbed I am to see no men in long hair and beards, and to see no girls in secondhand Army shirts and patched trousers. But in order to get on with the program, let me assume for the moment that you really are students

The problems of which you have just spoken are among the most pressing the world now faces, and it is clear that my generation needs the help of yours in solving them – we haven’t done very well by ourselves. In the few minutes left for my reply, I would simply like to say that the problems you mention are the most difficult ones I know, and there are no simple solutions.

People often say to me, “I don’t see how you can work in physics; it’s so complicated and difficult.” But actually, physics is the simplest of all the sciences; it only seems difficult because physicists talk to each other in a language that most people don’t understand – the language of mathematics. The thing that makes physics simple is that when we make a simple change in a system, such as adding a little heat, we can easily predict that the whole thing is going to get warmer. We can even treat more complicated systems like the famous Swedish Electrolux refrigerator, and correctly predict that if we add heat at one place, the cooling unit will start to make ice cubes.

But in the case of an infinitely more complicated system, such as the population of a developing country like India, no one can yet decide how best to change the existing conditions. You spoke of your concern, which I share, for the people of the lowest economic status, whose birth rate is highest, and who are most clearly faced with the prospect of starvation. But I am afraid that you have not properly identified the cause of the famine and starvation. In my opinion, the present situation is caused not by a high birth rate, but what we should call “death control.” It used to be that infant mortality was terribly high in India, but this has recently been arrested by the application of the great medical discoveries, made largely in the Western World. So it is not the high birth rate you mentioned that is the root of the troubles, it is the unnatural survival of so many children to an age when they become major food consumers – a survival made possible by the well intended efforts of good people who hate to see young babies die needlessly.

Would you have been wiser than we have been, if you had had your hand on the “control knob”? Would you have turned the control, as we did, to the position labeled “cut down infant mortality”, or would you have been wise enough to foresee the starvation that would be brought to these same infants and others as they grew older? You would probably agree with me that the proper answer to the evils brought about by “death control”, is birth control, to restore the population balance. But the religious and ethical problems faced by those who try to introduce birth control into certain cultures are beyond the comprehension of those of us who deal in the simple problems of physics.

One more illustration will show how difficult it is to decide whether we are helping or hurting humanity when we do something that is very obviously humane. Most women today are just barely able to give birth to children, in what is a terribly painful experience, if unaided by drugs. The reason women are able to endure childbirth is simply that those who couldn’t do so in the past, died in childbirth, and didn’t pass this inability on to their daughters. But what happens today? No doctor will let a woman die in childbirth if he can prevent it with a Caesarean operation, and you and I would do the same thing. But what is this doing to our hard-won genetic heritage? This illustration occurred to me simply because one of my friends owns a rare kind of small dog that has been bred to the point that all births must take place by Caesarean section. If we do the same thing to our human population – and we are certainly moving in that direction as a result of our feelings of personal humanity, what will happen to the human race if we face a natural disaster that would remove the possibility of modern medical care. We are not free from future global catastrophes such as an ice age, a period of intense volcanic activity that could blanket the atmosphere in dust, or a melting of the Antarctic ice cape that could flood most of the land on which we now live.

I am not trying to be a prophet of doom; I have merely given you two examples of the difficulties that will confront you when you have the responsibility to make decisions that will affect the future of mankind. I wish you the best of luck and good judgment when that time comes. The world would be a much better place in which to live if my generation and those that preceded it had had more of those two essential attributes, good luck and good judgement.

From Les Prix Nobel en 1968, Editor Wilhelm Odelberg, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 1969

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1968

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