You, Me and the Nobel Prizes 1999

Who deserves to be famous?
Do the Nobel prizes mean anything?
To you and to me?
It’s December. Time for their fifteen minutes.
Will they disappear again?

Are these people really important? And why?


Peace Prize

This Prize has been won by Medecins sans Frontieres - translated these days by the English-speaking Press as Doctors without Borders.

FOR YOU AND ME: Medecins sans Frontieres is an exceptional organisation: they understand what doctors are supposed to do – save lives.


  • Established in the late 1960’s by a small group of French doctors disgusted by the genocide in Biafra
  • Went against the Red Cross pledge of silence
  • Finally lost patience with the notion of national or international borders
  • Created an organisation of doctors who would risk life and limb to bring desperately-needed medical attention to disaster areas.
  • They have had a fairly checkered career:
A certain amount of in-fighting among its leaders – which is perhaps inevitable .Their passage has not always been made easy – eg. They were expelled from Kosovo earlier this year. They have been there where the battles happen, and the earthquakes, floods, droughts and fires. They were there when Communism fell:
  • Worked on AIDS prevention
  • Promoted anti TB programmes in Siberia


During the Kosovo conflict:

  • Set up refugee camps in Macedonia and Albania
  • Administered thousands of polio vaccines

They are in East Timor right now.


Medecins sans Frontieres


Still on the subject of healing the sick, the winner of the Medicine Prize is a 63-year old, cell and molecular biologist by the name of Guenter Blobel. Born in Waltersdorf in Germany, Blobel has for some time been a professor at Rockefeller University, New York

FOR YOU AND ME: Blobel may have provided a step along the way to our knowledge of cell damage in a range of infections and diseases, including Alzheimer’s, cystic fibrosis, kidney stones, and cancer.

In the 1970’s Blobel and his colleagues began pondering how proteins know their correct locations within cells.

Even though proteins are confronted with billions of possibilities, they always know where to go.


An equivalent task would be to hover above a vast city – say, five times larger than New York – and then be able to whiz straight down to a tiny house on a tiny street somewhere in the middle of it.

There can be no let-up, and they need to nip with great efficiency to their posts.

Proteins are long, folded chains made up building blocks (‘ionic forms’) known as amino acids.

Guenter Blobel’s prize is for discovering that that at one end of the protein, or within it, there are sequences of amino acids which make up the ‘zip codes’ or ‘postal codes’, which direct them with great accuracy to precisely the right place.

The compartments of a cell are actually tightly sealed

Blobel has also discovered how proteins actually enter the relevant ‘addresses’.

What’s more, he has found that there are analagous signals in practically all animals and plants.

Cystic fibrosis and some kidney ailments are caused by the failure of crucial proteins to arrive where they are needed

(proteins do running repairs, maintenance and construction work all the time.)

Gunter Blobel’s lab

ADDITIONAL NOTE: Blobel is showing ingenuity, too, in his use of the prize money, which amounts to $960,000 (almost a million euro). With his deep respect for structure, he is giving a large proportion of it towards the restoration of three buildings. One of them is in Italy.

The other two are in a German city. Dresden. Once a great centre of culture, art and architecture, Dresden was bombed with tremendous ferocity by the Allies in February 1945. Guenter Blobel was just eight years old at the time; he witnessed it.

So the ironies swirl around his choice of the two buildings in Dresden which his money will help to restore: a church and a synagogue


Ahmed H. Zewail won the 1999 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Born in Egypt in 1946, Zewail studied in Alexandria before moving to the U.S. He now works at Caltech – the California Institute of Technology – in Pasadena.

Zewail’s chemistry involves the obervation of atoms

  • He ‘makes movies’:
  • Studying the order and duration of events in the natural world and the measurement of time are among the earliest activities that might be classified as science.
  • Zewail uses tremendously rapid – or ‘ultrashort’ - pulses of laser light
  • He has shown that it is possible to take time-freezing photographs of atoms moving within molecules.
  • It has been his intention to open up entirely new vistas in the microscopic world.
  • They occur a million billion times faster than a heartbeat (.0000000000000001 of a second) .
  • The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences stated that it was ‘the end of the road’, in the sense that no chemical reactions take place faster than that.


FOR YOU AND ME: This probing provides to our knowledge of physical, chemical, and biological changes and adds to our fundamental understanding of nature

Even before he won the prize, Zewail had been honoured with doctorates around the world, and, indeed, in 1998 Egypt issued a postage stamp in his honour.

Many believe that his contribution to science will be long-lasting. But as Zewail himself remarked, Egyptian stamps do tend to honour the pyramids, Tutankhamun, and Nefertiti.

Ahmed H Zewail’s Homepage:



Here the prize went to Dutch quantum theorists Gerardus 'tHooft and Martinus J.G. Veltman.

The two men first worked together in 1969, and in the physics community this award is thought by many to be long overdue.

‘t Hooft, now 53 years old, has spent his working life at the University of Utrecht, where he was at first Veltman’s student and then a professorial colleague. Veltman.

Professor Emeritus at the University of Michigan after working there since 1981, has recently retired and returned to Holland.


In an interview on Dutch radio, however, Veltman modestly said, ""The social benefit of [our] theory is absolutely nil -- you won't eat any more or less as a result of it" However:

99% of the sun’s energy is produced by ‘electroweak’ interactions, so you and I experience the tangible evidence of their research, every day.

Of course there is much that remains unknown, but the formidably brilliant calculations of ‘t Hooft and Veltman have been most helpful in our understanding of the workings and the wonder of the Universe

It is one of the greatest quests in all of science to unite four forces that operate throughout nature.

Indeed Einstein laboured at it for thirty years and the problem still defeats physicists.

The four forces are: the strong nuclear force, electromagnetism, the weak nuclear force and gravity.

In 1979 electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force were united – a most important step along the way.

And it is to do with those electromagnetic and ‘weak’ interactions that the work of ‘t Hooft and Veltman has been extremely helpful.

The two researchers were awarded the Nobel Prize for having placed particle physics theory on a firmer mathematical foundation.

Their ideas have now been tested experimentally, using particle accelerators.

Particle accelerators have been growing longer, wider, and more expensive since they first appeared in the 1950’s

Using them, patterns or models have emerged about the fundamental building blocks that make up everything around us and all that exists throughout the universe.

Gerardus ‘t Hooft:

Martinus Veltman:



The ‘Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, 1999’. This award was established in1969, and this year it went to Professor Robert A. Mundell, Columbia University, New York, USA

67 year old, Canadian-born Mundell, studied in British Columbia, Washington, and at the London School of Economics before getting his Ph.D at M.I.T. (Massachusetts Institute of Rechnology)


His ideas have considerable influence upon discussions of monetary, fiscal, and currency policies.

His work is especially important if you are a European, because what he has had to say has been prescient and perceptive about the Euro.

A lucid and intuitive communicator, Mundell’s intellectual and formal analysis does not exclude intuition.

He has also chosen his fields of study with uncanny accuracy, so that - especially with regard to international monetary arrangements and capital markets - in his case the word ‘prophetic’ would not be an exaggeration.

Mundell has made convincing analyses of investment behaviour, suggesting – correctly – that higher inflation can induce investors to lower cash balances.

He has made lasting contributions to international trade theory by clarifying how the international mobility of labor and capital tends to equalize commodity prices, while increasing the fragility of regimes with temporarily fixed, but adjustable, exchange rates.

Mundell’s thesis, completed in 1956, dealt with international capital movements

His work over the past four decades is still at the very core of international macroeconomics.

Mundell spent the years 1961 to 1963 at the International Monetary Fund

This apparently stimulated his choice of research problems

It also gave him the ear of the world’s important economic policymakers.



The Literature Prize was won by the novelist Günter Grass, 72, who now lives in Behlendorf in northern Germany.

Grass was the fifth European in a row to win the award, and the fifth German laureate in the prize’s history; the most recent German winner was Heinrich Boell in 1972

FOR YOU AND ME: See quotations and speeches below

In cartoons in Germany, Grass is always depicted beating a drum, because of his first novel, ‘Die Blechtrommel’- The Tin Drum. The novel, published in 1959 and made into a film directed by Volker Schloendorff in 1979, made Grass famous, although it was at first considered shocking – blasphemous, pornographic and obscene.

Grass, a shopkeeper’s son, was born in Danzig. During the Second World War, he served in the Luftwaffe, was captured by the Allies, and spent a year in an American prisoner-of-war camp. By the time he got back to Germany, Danzig was a Polish city called Gdansk, Germans were evacuated from the entire area, and he and his family had to settle in ‘West Germany’ a completely new and different environment. Grass called The Tin Drum and the two novels that followed it, ‘The Danzig Trilogy’

In The Tin Drum, the protagonist Oskar Matzerath, decides not to grow.

This stunting is frequently connected to Germany's stunted development towards democracy. instance, But Oskar Matzerath has also been viewed as bearing a strong resemblance to Hitler. Hitler was often called ‘the drummer’ , the one who beat the drum.

Grass studied art, and regards himself as a literary autodidact, but apart from the extraordinary exuberance, the magical nature of his tales, and the symbolism he evokes, some critics regard his greatest achievement to lie in the language he developed. He has worked on freeing the German language from Nazi jargon, has given German a new quality, and has actually coined a number of new words.

So careful is he about language that he has established a unique seminar for all his translators. For each new work, all of his translators from around the world meet in Germany for three days of discussion with him. He sometimes even alters the work after these discussions, since he believes that translators tend to be the most astute readers of literature.

Grass was a speechwriter for the social Democrat chancellor, Willy Brandt in the 1970s. And in 1990, with the world rejoicing as the Berlin Wall came down, he declared "Capitalism has never been more barbaric and beast-like than after the victory over the communist system."

Grass’s new book, My Century, published due to be published in English in November 1999, is reported to an author coming to peace with the past. But Grass will never be able to ease up on those of any persuasion who are guilty of smugness.

The secretary of the Swedish Academy, Horace Engdahl, actually went so far as to state that the academy had not taken into account Grass’s political views. It was, apparently for Grass’s ‘entire body of work’.

This is baffling to say the least, since his views permeate almost every sentence in his ‘body of work’. And even in the very same statement, there follows a remarkable tribute to his approach to politics: "[Grass has } come to grips with reviewing contemporary history by recalling the disavowed and the forgotten: the victims, losers and lies that people wanted to forget because they had once believed in them,"

"In the basic German soul there is a sickness," Grass has said. "It is my job to think and write about it." He realised - as he puts it - "that this is a country in which books and them people can be burned" (indeed in one of his books, a grocer warms his hands over the fire). As a result, he says, he "realised that there is no place to hide."

His latest work, just published in English, is called My Century. It is a deep and often comical work, in which he tells 100 stories about the past 100 years, in which he appears to be less ferocious politically. Nevertheless, those of any persuasion who are guilty of smugness will never feel easy when Gunter Grass is around.

Just a few days ago in Stockholm, during his acceptance speech for the Prize, Grass declared: "Refugees are flocking all over the world accompanied by hunger," and that "It takes political will paired with scientific know-how to root out misery of such magnitude, and no one seems resolved to undertake it." He went on to say that he was "reminded how few prizes have been awarded to projects that would rid the world of the scourge of mankind: hunger."

As he has said: "Art is so wonderfully irrational, exuberantly pointless, but necessary all the same. Pointless. And yet necessary. That’s hard for a puritan to understand.".

Gunter Grass: