The Nobel Prize in Physics shines a spotlight on a select group of scientists. But for all the fanfare and fame that comes with the award, the laureates are only human. As a result, they often have fascinating tales to tell about the day their lives changed forever.
Many stories from physics Nobel laureates and their colleagues are recorded in the oral history collection compiled by the Center for History of Physics and the Niels Bohr Library & Archives of the American Institute of Physics. (AIP publishes Physics Today.) Some focus on how the researchers discovered they had been awarded the prize. Others describe the subsequent congratulations and celebration. The following stories illuminate how Nobel Prize recipients can be, at heart, ordinary people who are thrust into extraordinary circumstances.
A round of applause
In 1999 Gerard ‘t Hooft of Utrecht University in the Netherlands was invited by a colleague and friend to give a talk in Bologna, Italy, about gravity and quantum physics. The presentation—perhaps not accidentally—coincided with the announcement of the Nobel Prize. Projecting his slides on a transparency, ‘t Hooft gave what he thought was a pretty good talk. As he told historian David Zierler last year, as his talk ended there was a particularly enthusiastic eruption of applause.
When my talk was over, I received an applause, but the applause was longer and louder than I had expected. I thought [to] myself, “I gave a good talk, but not that good, so why this kind of applause?” As it turned out, students had left the room, looked up on the internet, and found the announcement of the Nobel Committee 1999, which they had printed and projected on the screen for everybody in the audience to see, except for me, as I had my back to the screen.
They said, “Look at your screen,” and only then I realized that this would be a special moment in my life, that this prize is going to change it. And of course, that’s what it did.
For his work explaining mechanisms behind the electroweak interaction, ‘t Hooft received a share of the 1999 Nobel Prize in Physics.
A soaking-wet scientist
MIT theoretical physicist Frank Wilczek planned to be up early at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on the morning the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics was to be announced. Unfortunately, as he told Zierler in 2020, he wasn’t ready quite early enough.
Well, 6:00am was going to be the public announcement, but I didn’t realize that they would call people before that. I guess I knew much less about the Nobel Prize then. … And, well, I took the call of course, but I came right out of the shower. I didn’t dry off. I was just soaking wet and took this call. And you know [my wife] Betsy knew about all this stuff, of course, and said, “It sounds like someone with a Swedish accent.” You should definitely take this call.” And I did. And it was, of course, the Nobel Committee. …
I thought when they did tell you that they’d just say, “Congratulations, you’ve won the Nobel Prize.” Goodbye.” But it wasn’t that way at all. Several of my Swedish colleagues wanted to congratulate [me] and gave little speeches. … And they wanted to give some advice about how to deal with the press. So this went on for about 20 minutes, and I was still soaking wet, and just—my wife was trying to dry me off. So it was quite an experience.
And then when that was over, … I think I put on some clothes, but then … I wanted to call my parents right away, because I knew this would mean a lot to them. … They had grown up in difficult circumstances and really were invested in my success. So I called, but when I called up, my father was furious. He said, “Do you know what time it is?” What do you want? What are you trying to sell me? Whatever it is, I don’t want it!”
Wilczek was recognized for his theoretical work on quarks, which informed the understanding of the strong nuclear force.
What was that again?
J. Michael Kosterlitz spent much of the 1970s investigating phase transitions using topology. Much later, in the fall of 2016, Kosterlitz was on a sabbatical leave in Finland from his professorship at Brown University. His memorable moment, he told Zierler last year, came on the afternoon of October 5 when he was hungry for lunch. As he moved through an underground car park towards a mall to get sushi and a beer, his phone went off in his pocket.
I sort of managed to dig my cell phone out and answered, and there was this Swedish accent came over: “Blah, blah, blah, Nobel Prize.” And I sort of thought, “Did he actually say that I had won the Nobel Prize, or what?” I had no idea that this work was under consideration anymore. You know, I sort of just stopped thinking about it. We did the work in, let’s say, the mid 1970s, and this was now 2016, so this was, what, 35, 40 years later. …
So then, as I said, it slowly penetrated through, what the guy had said. And I was sort of trying to struggle to say something, but I was so amazed that nothing came out. So there was a 30-second silence. And the only thing I can think of saying at the end was “Jesus.” That was the end of the conversation.
A department fax machine
On the morning of 13 October 1993, astrophysicist Joseph Taylor was asleep at his home in Princeton, New Jersey, when his wife was awakened by a phone call from Stockholm. The caller—a Swedish reporter, not the Nobel Committee—proceeded to inform him that he had just been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. That was followed by so many phone calls from reporters and well-wishers that Taylor and his wife eventually unplugged the phone to eat breakfast in peace. Taylor never received an official phone call, he told Zierler in 2020.
“I went off to the physics department. By that time, it was already known about that, in part because the Nobel folks, having failed to reach me by telephone, had sent a fax to a machine in the corridor outside the department office. The corridor was accessible to anybody, and graduate students had already found the fax and were reading it.”
Taylor shared the prize with Russell Hulse for their discovery of a binary pulsar that enabled the indirect detection of gravitational radiation.
“Don’t let the prize go to your head”
Samuel Ting of MIT earned a share of the 1976 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work that demonstrated the existence of charm quarks. The experimental physicist missed his own party at MIT, though, because he was at CERN conducting an experiment in the Intersecting Storage Rings. He found out from the secretary general of the Nobel Committee over the phone. Then the long-distance congratulations started rolling in, he told Zierler in 2020.
The first telegram came from fellow Nobel laureate II Rabi. “Rabi said, ‘Well, Sam, from now on, you will find that funding will be easier.’ Indeed, this is the case. It has not made my life more difficult, mainly because I always just work on my experiments,” said Ting.
Three days later, Richard Feynman also sent his regards. According to Ting, the telegram read, “Congratulations Sam, but why do they give prizes to guys who discover things that I didn’t expect and don’t understand?” Please don’t let the prize go to your head. I challenge you to discover something that I can easily understand.”
A call from Air Force One
David Wineland of NIST in Boulder, Colorado, shared the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the measurement and manipulation of quantum systems. He told Zierler in 2020 that his Nobel day started at 4:00am with a call from the Nobel Committee, then calls from a few more reporters.
And so, I think I took one other call, then I said to my wife, “This is going to be crazy. I’m just not going to take more calls.” So I was certainly awake by then. And then around five in the morning, the reporters started showing up on our doorstep, people from Denver and other places. I didn’t want my wife being bothered, and I said, “I’m going to go to work.”
When he got to work, he learned that NIST had organized a press conference, and the calls continued to pour in on his work phone.
At about five-thirty in the afternoon that day, I was getting ready to go home. Before I left the office, the phone rang. And I thought, “Oh, well maybe I’ll just take this one call.” I’d not taken hundreds of other ones before that. The person asked, “Is this David Wineland?” I said yes, and he said, “This is Air Force One.” It was President Obama calling! It was really cool and great to have that happen. I did eventually reply to the other calls that I’d received.
It takes a community
Although the Nobel Prize can be awarded to a maximum of three individuals, many scientific discoveries involve much larger collaborations. That was the case for the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics, which was awarded to Rainer Weiss, Barry Barish, and Kip Thorne for the direct measurement of gravitational waves by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). Corey Gray, the senior operations specialist at the LIGO Hanford Observatory, recalled to Zierler in 2020 that the recipients made clear the enormous importance of the collaboration.
Rai and Barry and Kip made it known [to the Nobel Committee] that this was a group project. … They weren’t able to change the Nobel Committee’s decision, but at least they voiced their opinion. They let everybody in the collaboration know that we were a part of it. There’s a letter in our control room that I think Rai, Kip, and Barry drafted. It’s framed in the control room, and it just talked about how the work of LIGO couldn’t have happened without all of the members of the team.
Even though he didn’t receive a medal, Gray couldn’t wait to celebrate the award.
It was so awesome with the Nobel, though. I knew that if they won it, I would take vacation time, pay my own way, and make sure to travel to Stockholm. I did, and my family wanted to go—so my siblings and father joined me. We tailgated outside of the Concert Hall in the cold while they were getting their medals. It was amazing!
A mentor remembers her student
Joseph Taylor may have received his Nobel Prize for astrophysics research, but he started out as an undergraduate at Haverford College thinking he would be a math major. When he discovered he enjoyed physics classes much more than mathematics, he was uncertain whether he should switch. He reached out to one of his professors, Fay Ajzenberg-Selove, a nuclear physicist and National Medal of Science recipient, looking for guidance.
Fay Selove, one of the pioneer women in physics, was a superb mentor. I wrote her a letter over the summer before my sophomore year, effectively saying, “I’m not really sure I like what I’m doing. Should I be a physics major instead? I’ll try to catch up to the others in my class.” She strongly encouraged me, saying, “Go ahead; you’ll catch right up.”
And, as it turns out, she saved my letter. Years later, after my Nobel Prize had been announced, we were both present at a celebration at Haverford. Fay pulled out the letter and said, “I’ve been saving this letter for 30 years, to use against you at some time in the future.”