The story may be apocryphal, but it is entertaining nevertheless: At the end of class one week towards the beginning of the semester, Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott tells his MFA workshop at Boston University that, unfortunately, he will not be able to attend class next week. “There are certain responsibilities,” he informs the class, “that come with being a Nobel Laureate.” The students nod, imagining an ultra-exclusive confab of geniuses, a super-Davos on a secret island in the Indian Ocean. As he expounds on his regret, one of the students in the class leans over and happens to glance at Walcott’s planner, which is open on the desk in front of him. Written in block letters across nearly half the page are the words SAINT LUCIA, the Caribbean island where Walcott grew up and the real reason for his absence.
Whether or not the story is true, it gets at a question that has been bugging me for the past few weeks. What do you do after you win the Nobel prize? Sure, you spend a few months resting on your laurels. You go to Stockholm, you collect your prize, you give your speech, but then what? What happens when the ceremonies subside and the congratulatory telegrams trickle away to nothing? Surely, there are some laureates who can make a career from speaking engagements and consulting. And there are some laureates who have at least a few more years of running the free world ahead of them. But for those workaday laureates, for those laureates who have to go back to the office or the lab or the classroom, does the Nobel really change anything? To answer this question, I have complied a few links to articles written by former Nobel prize winners reflecting on how the prize changed their lives.
- Winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics, Frank Wilczek, reflects on life before and after winning the Nobel.
- Peter Doherty, who was given the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1996, wrote a book called The Beginner’s Guide to Winning the Nobel Prize: Advice for Young Scientists.
- Orhan Pamuk’s translator, Maureen Freely, gives some advice to Doris Lessing, who won the Nobel for Literature in 2007.
- Oliver Smithies, who won the 2007 Nobel for Medicine, says the prize hasn’t changed him “one little bit.”