Nobel Aspirations

If your phone ever rings at 5 a.m. in October, answer it. That’s when they award the Nobel Prize and as this morning’s news proves, you just never know, it might be you. Many Octobers ago my phone rang before dawn with Nobel news about two professors who won the prize in Physics. The call came from the Director of the MIT News Office, and as the Interim Assistant to the President of MIT, it was my job to know help him prepare to recognize and celebrate the awards such.

At a place like MIT, where 63 people have won the prize, people talk about Nobels like the rest of the world talks about a really great promotion – to people accustomed to extraordinary accomplishment, a Nobel is a distinct possibility, and some get to the point where they plan their careers around it. One gentleman declined the presidency of the Institute based on his expectation that he was a contender for the prize and that accepting an administrative position would hurt his chances. (He did win the Prize, eventually.)

So, given that this event was oddly commonplace and extraordinary, we set about honoring the winners while tip toeing among the winners (there are over 60 as of this writing) and losers that roam the Infinite Corridor. The President, intent on doing the right thing, asked me to visit the Dean of Science to invite him to the press conference honoring the winners. He specifically instructed me to walk down to the office and extend the invitation in person, rather than via phone or e-mail. I knew that the Dean of Science, an imposing and square jawed man with a laugh that reminded me of Beavis and Butthead, was still smarting from being passed over for the Presidency and then the Provost’s position. It became quite clear to me how much he was smarting when I asked to see him personally on behalf of the president and he did not only not rise from his desk, but only glanced briefly over his half glasses at me and inquired what I wanted. I felt more like a child in a principal’s office than a presidential envoy, and was both terrified and furious. I extended the invitation as best I could and backed out of the office. When I told the President what happened he realized his mistake in sending a staff memer and, ever gracious, apologized for his colleague’s behavior. The winners themselves were wonderful, one charming and affable, the other more quiet and dignified, but both humbled and delighted by the acclaim. I generally found this to be true; that those with the greatest accolades were the most gracious and rewarding to work with.

All of this came back to me this morning when I learned of the Barack Obama’s own Nobel phone call and his daughter’s reactions that this was a great way to start a long weekend. So many laureates in so many disciplines toil in quiet libraries and busy labs, driven by the pursuit of a single idea or narrative, trying to explain something that has never been seen or told before in quite the same way. The award may or may not come, but they work on, devoted to an ideal often only known to them. Those prizes are awarded for moving us forward in a way we might not have expected; they shine light into corners we did not even know were there, and the prize turns up the wattage for the world to see. But Obama has been awarded the beacon itself, and is asked to make good on his promise to further illuminate the world, to take his message of hope and make it a reality. Whether history with judge this as and enlightened choice or a colossal act of hubris we will soon see for ourselves.

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