Our nation’s capital had the honor of feting the Nobel Laureates, in a preview of Stockholm’s full red carpet festivities, at what is widely considered D.C.’s glitziest night of the year -- D.C.’s Oscars! This year there were eight American recipients of the Prize in a wide variety of disciplines, six of whom attended the celebration at the Swedish Embassy on November 14th: Rainer Weiss (Physics), Kip S. Thorne (Physics), Michael Rosbash (Medicine), Michael W. Young (Medicine), Joachim Frank (Chemistry), and Richard Thaler (Economics).
Earlier in the day, the Laureates presented their work at a symposium at The House of Sweden. In her introductory remarks, newly arrived Ambassador Karin Olofsdotter noted that the USA is a research powerhouse, producing eight Laureates this year and 372 since the inception of the Prize in 1901. She also noted that Sweden ranks very highly in research dollars spent per capita -- though there are a lot fewer “capitas” than here in the US!
Hard work was the theme of the day. You might have heard the statistic that it takes 10,000 hours of practice -- about 5 years -- to become an expert in something. The Prizes awarded in Sweden will be for much more than 5 years’ worth of work: most Laureates have spent their lives contributing to the field. But they also emphasized two other elements: teamwork and financial support. The three physics Laureates led a team of over 1,000 people laboring for 40 years, with a budget of well over a billion dollars, on the work that earned them the Prize.
The Prize in medicine was awarded to three Americans who pioneered research on our circadian rhythm: our biological clock. One of the recipients, Michael Young, grew up in southern Florida, surrounded by tropical plants. At 12 he wondered why some flowers bloom during the day and why some animals wake up at night. He became fascinated with circadian rhythms. At that time, in the early 1980s, it was controversial to think that genes could determine behavior. But partially thanks to the recombinant DNA revolution, Young and the two other Prize recipients, Michael Rosback and Jeffrey Hall, were able to identify and characterize several genes that affect the circadian rhythm -- one aspect of behavior -- of fruit flies. Michael Rosbach made a point to say that he is no fan of daylight savings time. He believes it disrupts our natural circadian rhythm, and is at least partially responsible for the spike in heart attacks and car accidents that occur when we adjust our clocks every six months. And despite his life’s work, he says he has no answer to jetlag. He’s tried everything: melatonin, supplements, eating, not eating, drinking, not drinking… he says the only thing that works for him is a sleeping pill!
The Prize in Economics was awarded to Richard Thaler for his contributions to the field of behavioral economics, the central idea of which is that people are not rational economic creatures. In the past, economists had mostly assumed that people were very smart and behaved perfectly rationally. In this world, people have no self control problems, they eat just right amount and just the right foods, they save for retirement perfectly, and the list goes on. As Thaler joked at the dinner, the work that won him the Nobel Prize -- essentially disproving this theory of the completely rational economic actor -- was perfectly obvious to everyone except economists. According to Thaler, the concept of behavioral economics is self-evident: without taking human foibles into account, you can’t accurately model markets.
H.E. Karin Olofsdotter received the Nobel luminaries as well as Supreme Court Justices, Cabinet Secretaries, Senators, Senior White House principals, Members of Congress, senior media and tech entrepreneurs, President of the National Institutes of Health Dr. Francis Collins, and IFE Senior Fellow George Zaidan.
Nobels were everywhere and there was a lively, proud, energy in the room! Much toasting of “skål” continued and D.C.’s Oscar-like evening carried on with Nobels as our ROCK STARS!