Dennis Gabor’s speech at the Nobel Banquet in Stockholm, December 10, 1971
Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am honoured and rewarded far beyond my most sanguine expectations. My thanks go to the Nobel Committee, and also to that great, unhappy man who has given me this great happiness; Alfred Nobel.
Alfred Nobel’s personality has interested and intrigued me for a long time. In some ways I feel a kinship to him. He too was an inventor and an introvert. But an introvert with a wonderful grasp of realities which I have never possessed, and which enabled him to amass a great fortune in the ferocious business jungle of the nineteenth century. He was one of the great heroes of that epoch, which left us the heritage of basic technology; steel, the railways, the steam ship and dynamite. In the end he crowned his life’s work as a technological inventor with a brilliant social invention; the Nobel Foundation and the Nobel Prizes. This was very much in his character, because Alfred Nobel was of a type not at all rare among great introverts; he did not like people, but he loved humanity, for which he felt a deep responsibility.
Seventy-five years have now passed since Alfred Nobel’s death. We have progressed by what one could call a whole day of creation beyond the basic technology which he and his contemporaries have created. We now have electricity, the motor car, jet planes, computers and a great medical science. But we have also reached the stage which Alfred Nobel has prophetically foreseen, when two great armies can annihilate each other in seconds, with explosives a million times stronger than dynamite. The social consequences of the new technology are immense. In the highly industrialised one quarter of the world the simple man now enjoys a level of material comfort which was undreamt of in Alfred Nobel’s time. Yet, this wealth, which has poured out of the cornucopia of applied science, has not made us proud, happy and confident. We are far from the complacent self-satisfaction of the belle époque, the epoch of Alfred Nobel’s last years. Any thinking man or woman must feel deeply uneasy when contemplating the future of our civilisation. Alfred Nobel was deeply distrustful of human nature. We, with the memory of two World Wars, and with the insights of the new psychology, are even more so. Many of us strongly suspect that Man’s nature was admirably adapted for bringing us from the jungle and the cave to the present high stage of industrial civilisation – but not for staying long and happily on this height.
In his epoch Alfred Nobel was a very wise man by endowing what he considered as pursuits of eternal values; science, pure and applied, idealistic literature, peace. I sometimes wonder what he would have done if he had lived seventyfive years later? I think that he would have been highly satisfied to see what physics, chemistry and medicine have done to make the world a better place for men, but he would have been deeply unhappy to see that it has failed to make the world a safer place. I do not presume to guess what his inventive genius might have done, but I feel that he would have put the emphasis on the study of man’s nature, and of the social institutions which may protect him for himself.
Yes, science and art, truth and beauty, are eternal values for any civilisation which deserves this name, but they can flourish only if they are protected by wise social institutions against the fighting animal in man, which safeguard peace, social and international. My wish is that the talents of the whole next generation should recognize this as their first priority.