Nine scientists became new Nobel Laureates this week when the 2014 Nobel Prizes in Chemistry, Physics and Physiology or Medicine were announced. Eric Betzig, Stefan W. Hell and William E. Moerner won the chemistry prize for improving the microscope; Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura won the physics award for inventing blue light-emitting diode (LED) lights; and John O'Keefe, May-Britt Moser and Edvard I. Moser won the medicine prize for discovering cells that make up the brain’s navigational system. They won’t pick up their medals, certificates and cash prizes until a December ceremony in Stockholm, but their names have already been added to the lists of the 196 previous physics laureates, the 166 chemistry laureates and the 204 medicine laureates.
Winning the prize, considered the highest honor in each of these fields, tends to have a dramatic effect on scientists’ lives. “Your life does change overnight,” recalled astrophysicist Brian Schmidt, who won the 2011 Nobel Physics Prize for co-discovering dark energy—the mysterious element of the universe that is causing the expansion of spacetime to speed up. “It’s not like you get advanced warning, they just sort of call you up, in my case, in the middle of cooking dinner. ‘Hello? By the way, you’ve won the Nobel Prize.’”
Schmidt spoke about his experience at an event in New York City last month celebrating the construction of one of the largest observatories in the world, the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), due to open in 2020 in Chile. His institution, Australian National University, is part of the GMT consortium. Among other scientific goals, the telescope will study faraway stars and galaxies to understand the expansion of space and the nature of the dark energy that is pulling it apart, which is thought to make up about 70 percent of the total mass and energy in the universe.
Among the many changes the Nobel Prize brought to Schmidt’s life: travel hassles. Here’s what he said it’s like to carry a Nobel medal aboard an airplane:
“There are a couple of bizarre things that happen. One of the things you get when you win a Nobel Prize is, well, a Nobel Prize. It’s about that big, that thick [he mimes a disk roughly the size of an Olympic medal], weighs a half a pound, and it’s made of gold.
“When I won this, my grandma, who lives in Fargo, North Dakota, wanted to see it. I was coming around so I decided I’d bring my Nobel Prize. You would think that carrying around a Nobel Prize would be uneventful, and it was uneventful, until I tried to leave Fargo with it, and went through the X-ray machine. I could see they were puzzled. It was in my laptop bag. It’s made of gold, so it absorbs all the X-rays—it’s completely black. And they had never seen anything completely black.
“They’re like, ‘Sir, there’s something in your bag.’
I said, ‘Yes, I think it’s this box.’
They said, ‘What’s in the box?’
I said, ‘a large gold medal,’ as one does.
So they opened it up and they said, ‘What’s it made out of?’
I said, ‘gold.’
And they’re like, ‘Uhhhh. Who gave this to you?’
‘The King of Sweden.’
‘Why did he give this to you?’
‘Because I helped discover the expansion rate of the universe was accelerating.’
At which point, they were beginning to lose their sense of humor. I explained to them it was a Nobel Prize, and their main question was, ‘Why were you in Fargo?’"