Nobel Prize

The phone call from the Nobel Committee that changes lives

It's a life-altering moment when the Nobel Committee rings - if the winners pick up

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 October, 2012, 3:29pm

Some Nobel laureates find out while on a plane, others think it's a hoax, and some don't even hear the phone ring.

On Tuesday, French physicist Professor Serge Haroche was out walking with his wife when his cellphone rang. He saw the 46 country code on the display and recognised it immediately as a call from Sweden. For a top scientist, a call from Sweden in early October can mean only one thing: a Nobel dream come true.

"I was in the street, passing near a bench, and was able to sit down immediately," he told journalists via a live link to Stockholm, describing the honour as "fairly overwhelming".

US researcher Professor Robert Lefkowitz, who shared this year's chemistry prize with Professor Brian Kobilka, admitted he had not heard the phone ringing when the call came through.

"I was fast asleep and the phone rang. I did not hear it. I must share with you that I wear ear plugs to sleep, and so my wife gave me an elbow: 'phone for you'. And there it was. A total shock and surprise," he said.

Kobilka said he found out around 2.30am on Wednesday after the Nobel committee called his home twice. He said he didn't get to the phone the first time, but that when he picked up the second time, he spoke to five members of the committee.

The prize-awarding academies make every effort to contact the winners about a half an hour before the official announcement is made. The work honoured in the science fields - medicine, physics and chemistry - is often groundbreaking research done decades ago that has over the years led to advances in the respective areas.

As a result, the top scientists in their fields have an inkling their work may win, though the honours could come many years later. After their revolutionary 1983 discovery that ulcers were mainly caused by a bacterium and not stress, Australia's Professor Barry Marshall and Dr Robin Warren began a tradition of meeting up at the pub on the day the Nobel Prize for medicine was announced - primarily to drown their sorrows over not winning. But in 2005, the magical call did finally come.

"Once a year I'd round [Warren] up and we'd go and have fish and chips and a few beers," Marshall later said. "So we received a phone call on his cellphone about half an hour before the official announcement … was going to come out.

"I think you're just frozen - it's the sort of thing that you can't really say that you felt a lot of emotion," he said.

The 1991 chemistry prize laureate, Dr Richard Ernst of Switzerland, was on a plane when he got the news from Stockholm.

"The captain came to me and told me I had won the prize," Ernst said in an interview on the website. "I went to the cockpit and spoke to Swiss radio and to my family," he said.

Dr Louis Ignarro of the United States, who won the 1998 medicine prize, was just about to board a plane at the airport in Nice, France, when a colleague known for pranks told him on a cellphone handed to him by an airport official that he had won the Nobel prize.

"Then I lost the connection. And I had to board the plane to Naples. So I never really knew if I had won it," he said.

"I thought that maybe if I had really won it, my picture would be in the papers, so I looked around. I thought maybe people would recognise my face. But no." When the plane landed, a professor from the university where he was going to hold a lecture met him on the tarmac with the printed announcement from the Nobel committee.

"It was in Swedish but I saw the word 'Nobel'," Ignarro said.

"I actually dropped to the ground, I was so surprised and so jubilant."