Arno Penzias’ speech at the Nobel Banquet, December 10, 1978
Students of Stockholm,
During the past few days a number of things both great and small, have happened to me for the first time in my life. One of these “firsts” is to be asked to begin a speech to the sound of trumpets and end it in under two minutes. I will try.
Let me begin by thanking you for your good wishes for myself and my colleagues. Something occurred to me while I was reading the text of your address that I would like to share with you.
The Greeks were able to write immortal poetry, invent geometry, lay the foundation of philosophy etc. without automobiles, television or huge power plants. The needs and wants of citizens were instead provided for by a plentiful supply of human slaves. Little was demanded of technology. Indeed, it was argued at the time, that all conceivable human inventions had already been made. Participation in those tasks which might have stimulated inventions was regarded as an unfit activity for gentlemen. Human curiosity was not used for the betterment of the human conditions and the brief bright flame that was the glory of Greece soon dimmed.
Curiosity is a precious gift which comes so naturally to us that we sometimes fail to appreciate it. Children ask difficult questions. Why is it dark at night? Why do you smoke cigarettes? Why is that man lying on the sidewalk? Why does the car smoke when it’s cold? We parents experience a feeling of relief when our children are finally old enough to go to school and learn to stop asking so many questions.
I hope that you have not learned that lesson too well in your schooling. I hope, instead, that you will encourage the spirit of free inquiry in yourselves, in the people around you, and in your institutions. Thus you can help build and maintain a society in which science, in all its forms, can flourish in the service of mankind.
Students of Stockholm, Nature will begin to harden your arteries and your attitudes soon enough, without your help. You are not obligated to speed the process along. Most important, the evident fact that those of tonight’s laureates who are the oldest chronologically are also the youngest in spirit shows that this process is not inevitable.