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The Perks and Pitfalls of Being a Nobel Laureate: Early Mornings, Performance Anxiety

On the plus side, at UC Berkeley you get free parking

The front of a Nobel Prize medal. (Freestockphotos)
smithsonian.com

Across the globe, the calls are beginning this week as this year’s Nobel Prize winners are informed of their success.

What will follow is a dream of many academics: a prestigious opportunity to lecture, an award ceremony in Sweden, and years of prestige to follow. But it isn’t all massive cash prizes and universal acclaim–the practical realities of winning a Nobel can sometimes be distinctly unglamorous.

American Nobel recipients find out early

“Most Nobel Prize winners are American,” writes Ian Sample for The Guardian. “For them the negatives start even before an award is public knowledge. Thanks to the invention of time zones, those on the East coast are woken rudely in their beds before 5 a.m. On the West coast the call comes in the dead of night, when few people answer the phone to good news.”

Laureates can be plagued by performance anxiety

With the fame and money of the prize win comes a lot of attention from journalists, academic institutions and the public, Sample writes. “Journalists’ questions are the obvious downside,” 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics winner Andre Geim told Sample.

All the attention has other effects as well, Sample writes: “Some Prize winners may let the award go to their heads, but others are almost paralysed by insecurity after being singled out for doing no more than their day job.”  

"I found it pretty hard to bear at first, and was extremely nervous that the Swedes would realise their mistake and rescind the prize at the last minute,” Tim Hunt, who shared the 2001 Nobel Prize in Medicine, told Sample. Other laureates have had difficulty doing followup work.

The prize can get in the way of the laureates' actual work

Elinor Ostrom, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2010, told NPR hosts Robert Siegel and Mary Louise Kelly in 2011 that her calendar was full up with speaking engagements. “But I also am teaching,” she said, “and I have ongoing research and graduate students. And keeping up with it all is a challenge.”

“Time is the greatest casualty for many laureates,” Sample writes. But although the Nobel does contain some mixed blessings, there are also perks:

Cross-pollination with other laureates

“One of the things I have enjoyed is meeting the Nobel literature laureates,” John Walker, who received the 1997 Nobel Prize in Chemistry,  told  New Scientist. “I had a long debate with Günter Grass on one occasion about the value of science in society. We agreed to differ at the end of it. I also met and got to know somewhat Seamus Heaney, the poet, and found him a very civilised man.”

Free parking

One of the weirder perks some Nobel laureates receive are the “Nobel Laureate Reserved” parking spaces at the University of California at Berkeley. A prize-holder can park in one of these spaces for the rest of his tenure at UC Berkeley.

"The Berkeley tradition dates back to 1980, when Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. He wanted a spot, so he simply asked for one,” writes Atlas Obscura. “The parking wish was granted, and it’s since become standard practice—one that apparently sticks in the craw of the laureates over at Stanford.”

UC Berkeley’s history of Nobel laureates stretches back to physicist Ernest O. Lawrence’s 1939 win–other than Milosz, all are chemists, physicists or economists, reflecting the school’s traditional strengths. All are men and the majority are white, reflecting larger systemic prejudices in the Nobel Prize system. 

This year's winners remain to be seen.

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