Martinus J.G. Veltman’s speech at the Nobel Banquet, 10 December 1999.
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highness, Ladies and Gentlemen,
There is something very mysterious about the Nobel Prize. No prize has anywhere near the status of the Nobel prize. Clearly, the Swedes have a mysterious hold on the world.
This stimulated me to go digging in Swedish history. In the old times there were Vikings living here, and the very name still strikes terror in the hearts of the citizens of Europe. The big mystery is this: why did they go out and start plundering? Was this a way of shopping? I do not think so, because I have never heard of them going for potatoes. Those did not exist in Europe at that time anyway. They are claimed to have discovered America, and maybe this was for potatoes, but I do not really believe that. So what did they go for? Here Röde Orm comes back. His wife has worked all year to keep the family going. And what does he bring back? Gold, silver, a slave girl? I cannot imagine anything that would cheer up the wife. Certainly not my wife.
The Swedish Vikings went mainly to Russia. Well, it seems that there is even less to get, and the climate is not much better. Why then?
There is a hypothesis that in the Scandinavian countries the women are the boss. That seems consistent with what I see now. So maybe they were sent away or tried to escape?
Another hypothesis is that they did it for adventure, and that they came back only to have big parties. This makes some sense to me. Once a year there would be a gigantic, rousing party, each showing off his loot, and drinking and dancing. Obviously the Europeans would watch these parties closely, and would be very horrified by them.
Perhaps then the Nobel week is what is left of this custom, and perhaps the Laureates are some form of loot. In October many scientists sit behind their telephones, miserable, terrified for what the Vikings will do. Once selected the function of the Laureates is then clear: to be shown to the other Vikings, and to be part of the big party. And the whole world looks on, relaxing for another year.