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A look at the ‘very stoic’ Swedish Nobel tradition

Expecting fireworks when a Nobel prize winner is announced? You are going to be disappointed.

delhi Updated: Oct 15, 2013 01:49 IST
Ayesha Banerjee

Expecting fireworks when a Nobel prize winner is announced? You are going to be disappointed

You realise it's an intense moment. A Nobel prize winner is about to be announced. For the Indian that I am, however, used to my Bollywood tamasha and IPL taam jhaam, the event is too quiet, too staid, too very ‘stoic’ Swedish. Shouldn't there be more people instead of just the few camera persons, journalists, academicians and research students gathered outside the squat red brick structure of the Nobel Forum at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm?

As the Nobel tradition goes, the winner of the prize to be given first, for medicine and physiology, is announced at Karolinska, the country’s top medical research institute, in the first week of October every year. Excitement is palpable as everyone troops into the 'Wallenbergsalen', an auditorium with a capacity of about 200 - for the announcement. As member of a visiting group of journalists at Karolinska you need to present your official ID card to enter the Forum.

The women at the reception desk have a tough time scanning the lists for your name so you help them spot it and get a little blue sticker for your lapel to enter the auditorium. Once there, you see a large screen with the Image of the medicine medal. While photographers set up their cameras and journalists sit at their laptops or key in messages on their iPhones, in walks the sprightly, grey haired Goran K Hansson, secretary-general and spokesman, the Nobel
Assembly, which comprises 50 professors of Karolinska Institute.

They elect a Nobel Committee to review the nominations for the prize and meet five times a year to discuss potential winners. Hansson, MD PhD, is also professor of experimental and cardiovascular research at Karolinska. He is accompanied by Juleen Zierath, PhD, professor of clinical integrative physiology and chairman of the Nobel Committee and Jan-Inge Henter, MD, PhD, professor of clinical paedriatrical oncology and member of the Nobel Assembly, both from the institute.

When the names of James E Rothman, professor and chairman of the department of cell biology, Yale University; Randy W Schekman, professor in the department of molecular and cell biology, University of California, Berkeley; and Thomas C Sudhof, professor of molecular and cell physiology, Stanford University, are announced, and their discoveries of "machinery regulating vesicle traffic" mentioned, you feel like bursting into tears. What the hell has traffic got to do with medical science?

The moment of panic passes soon, however, as detailed explanations of the discoveries follow. The Nobel medal on the screen fades, to be replaced by slides with images of the miniature bubble-like vesicles and cells and their cargo. The language is simple and easy to understand. These are discoveries that delve deep into the functions of the powerful workhorse that a cell is.

It produces and exports molecules. Insulin is manufactured and released into the blood and chemical signals called neurotransmitters are sent from one nerve to another. What transports the molecules? Small packages called vesicles. As one image after another flashes on the screen, defining how vesicles function, you realise how important the discovery is. If humans are able to monitor the movements of the vesicles and cells and if their functioning could finally be controlled, think of where it all can lead to… cures for neurological diseases, diabetes and immunological disorders? Possibly.

As everyone sits around trying to grasp what's being said, Hansson throws open the floor for questions. There are a few half-hearted ones, and despite Hansson's exhortations to journalists to ask “questions, any more questions?” no one else has any other query. As suddenly as it had begun, the event comes to an end.

Earlier in the day, during a brief meeting, when I ask the tall, bespectacled Anders Hamsten, vice-chancellor of Karolinska Institute and professor of cardiovascular diseases, about his experiences as a member of the Nobel Assembly, all he says, very tongue-in-cheek, is, "it's very, very secret." Committee members have to read a lot and stay constantly updated on the lives and innovations and discoveries of doctors and scientists.

"As vice-chancellor it's difficult to find the time to do too much of reading and making all that effort to find out what's happening in the world," he says.

When you step out of the Forum you see the bust of Alfred Nobel - the man who discovered dynamite and who is now associated with the greatest of discoveries, the most creative of writings and with mankind’s noble efforts to bring peace to a conflict-ridden world. Celebrating the achievements of these people who work and write selflessly for others quietly without fuss is then perhaps the best way to laud the spirit of innovation, discovery and creativity.