Editor’s note: President France Córdova wrote this short essay on her return to Purdue University from Stockholm, Sweden, in December where she accompanied Nobel Prize winner Ei-ichi Neigishi.
The 2010 Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm is over, marking the end to a week in which ideas and discoveries are celebrated on a global level. For many, the specific concepts advanced by laureates escape our full comprehension, but one thing is clear: the power of ideas to shape and transform the world.
Two winners - Purdue University's Ei-ichi Negishi, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry, and Mario Vargas Llosa, winner of the prize in literature - couldn't seem more different. Therein lies the true beauty of the Nobel Prize experience. By honoring the chemist and the writer we can appreciate the similarities of great minds that are a wellspring of diverse ideas.
Both the scientist and the humanist imagine a better world, one realized by individual effort. They are all restless spirits. They all agree that we live in an unfinished story. They are defiant. They are about making possible what is imagined. They employ different approaches to realize the impossible.
Nobel Prize winners' work changes lives - and in return, their lives are changed. During the week of Nobel festivities, some laureates fretted about the price of their new fame. Thousands of well-wishers sent greetings and requested return autographs; there were seemingly endless requests for press interviews; and the list of invitations to speak to societies, universities, government ministries, industries and nonprofits was growing exponentially. Most of the laureates seemed awed by this celebrity status, with one calling the situation “chaos.”
Groupies, hoping for a glimpse or perhaps an autograph, gathered outside the hotel where the Nobelists and their guests stayed. Hoards of foreign journalists pressed awardees to expound on every issue of the day - from human rights to new technologies for renewable energy to unemployment - increasing the discomfort of these men who, after all, had won the award for very specialized work. Such, they learned, is the import of the Nobel Prize mantle: it elevates the awardees to an oracle status.
Although these men may have shied from speaking on subjects outside their areas of expertise, they did have something to say. In their Nobel Prize addresses, and at other times during the busy week, they collectively voiced optimism about the power of individuals to effect a better world. They would agree that the creative act starts with questioning what is, is stimulated by imagination and is realized with total commitment. Brashness, luck and friends or colleagues also can be important.
Negishi was strongly optimistic about the power of science to address the world’s problems. He spoke about his “lofty dream” that the synthesis of more complex organic compounds held the promise to resolve major challenges in energy production, food supply and climate change.
Vargas Llosa also spoke about dreams. He said that literature, and fiction in particular, cemented spoken or conceptual dreams for the ages, “preserving in us the best of what is human.” For him the imagined life is the exalted life, freeing one from tyranny, poverty and other misfortunes. In this, his method differs from the scientific methods of the physicist and the chemist. Yet his passion for fiction is no less fervent than the scientists’ passion for discovery and its application.
The Nobelists will travel widely, and they will continue to be asked to make pronouncements on issues far outside their specialties. Yet what they have to say from the depths of their experiences is far more important than their opinions on areas outside of their disciplines. They have a fervent, hopeful message for a world that needs optimism in the face of complexity, uncertainty and anxiety. The message of the Nobelists is a belief in the pursuit of one’s passion and the creativity, affirmation and change that can result from this commitment.
Before the December ceremony Negishi traveled to Japan to receive the Order of Culture from the Emperor, and after the ceremony he flew directly to Hawaii where he will headline a chemistry conference. This trip will be followed by a staggering schedule of worldwide engagements.
Eventually Negishi will return to Purdue and his West Lafayette home, called “Palladium” after the chemical element that was instrumental in his discovery of a better way to make complex carbon compounds. He will bring with him a new lesson that he shares over and over with young people: find your passion and become good at it. He adds, be sure to pursue a lofty dream. “Is it the right word – ‘lofty,’" he asked me during Nobel Week, as he pointed toward the sky. Yes, I responded, this is the right word; it is the message people long to hear.
France A. Córdova is president of Purdue University.