What the Nobel Prizes can teach us now…

A version of this was published today on Forbes.com.

During these dark financial days, the announcements of this year’s Nobel Prize recipients have fallen like shafts of sunlight. At a moment when it seems the world’s fate lies in hands of a few harried financiers and flawed politicians, it is useful to be reminded of people who pursue lives and do invaluable work far from these fevered, self-important fields.

Take Harold Zur Hausen, 72, joint recipient of the prize for medicine for having discovered that the human papilloma virus causes cervical cancer. When he first proposed that the virus was worth investigating, he was a solitary and unwelcome voice. It took him ten years to prove he was onto something. Then he fought to persuade pharmaceutical companies to produce a vaccine – but ran into marketing departments who said there was no such market for such a treatment. 35 years after he began his research into the link between the virus and cervical cancer, he is still working to provide vaccinations to those who cannot afford it.

Luc Montagnier, 76, another recipient of the medicine prize, heard the announcement while attending a conference on AIDS in the Ivory Coast. He thanked the Nobel committee for recognizing his work on AIDS research and prevention, but refused to see it as any capstone to his career. “Even after 20 years we are still fighting this virus, very strongly, and the AIDS epidemic – I am now in an African country – is still spreading in Africa, so the fight is not finished.”

Yoichiro Nambu, a Japanese emeritus professor at the University of Chicago, belatedly shared the Nobel for Physics for his work on the “dynamics of quarks”. Now 87, he has been tipped to win it for years. He was reported by Japanese newspapers to have been a child prodigy, who mastered equations in primary school and taught himself English by tearing a page from his dictionary each morning as a boy and memorizing it on the way to school. He always urged his graduate students not to work excessively, but to break up their weeks with baseball games and mystery novels.

Then today we learned that the French writer, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio had won the prize for Literature, a snub for all those who felt it was due an American writer. Asked yesterday morning to explain the purpose of his writing, he said: “Mainly to be true to myself, to express myself in the most accurate way. I feel that the writer is just a kind of witness of what is happening. A writer is not a prophet, is not a philosopher, he’s just someone who is witness to what is around him. And so writing is a way to … it’s the best way to testify, to be a witness.”

What seems to unite these Nobel winners? They appear to be practical rather than grandiose, with a very long view of events. They believe in a man’s ability over a lifetime to help and improve the lives of those around him and possess a broad notion of what truly matters.

With the peace prize announced tomorrow and economics on Monday, the Nobels have already proved their worth in shifting our attention briefly from the economic ER to the uplands of human achievement.

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