In a world of trouble, we give thanks for the slightest uplift. Therefore, Nobel week is worth celebrating. Yes, he got filthy rich from high explosives, but if he hadn’t done it somebody else would have. As Robert Heinlein once said, “when it’s time to railroad, somebody will railroad.” But how many wealthy men have decided to devote their wealth to so pleasant a purpose. Once a year we are reminded that not all human endeavor is vile, corrupt, self-serving, trivial or blood-spattered.
The science prizes are arguably the least subjective, though disputes regularly break out over the recipients chosen. Were they the most worthy? Didn’t other contenders deserve a shot? Wasn’t great work passed over? The only answer to that is: wait until next year or use your millions to start your own prize. And in emulation of Nobel, quite a few people have. Good. The more the merrier.
This year was heavy with brains and gadgetry. The Medicine laureates discovered how specialized cells in the brain serve the purpose of allowing creatures to understand their position in space, described as an internal GPS in order to help the layman get the drift. It was suggested that the work is of special interest as a milestone or perhaps fingerpost on the road to understanding how brains operate and perhaps how they go wrong.
Similarly, the Chemistry Prize was awarded for devising a revolutionary way to peer deeper into living cells as they go about their business through nanoscopy. And the Physics Prize was also as much about practical engineering as about pure or theoretical science. It recognized the development of blue light emitting diodes which have made possible cool, in both senses of the word, light bulbs which will save gazillions by doing more with less, which Buckminster Fuller celebrated as the point of engineering. They have also made possible the screens we all spend our lives gazing at, whether TV, computer or phone.
All of the above seem to the layman almost magical. Here small teams or individuals have discovered how to penetrate mysteries or to do things long thought impossible and have blazed trails for other explorers to follow. Probably none of these clever humans toiling in relative obscurity has ever had a payday to rival that of the least of the Kardashians or a middling running back, but now they have gotten a nice windfall and more than fifteen minutes of fame. Delightful.
Literature and Peace, the last two prizes if you don’t count Economics (And who would? This is supposed to be uplifting), are far more a matter of taste or the mood of the times, and are therefore more likely to be disputed than the scientific prizes. Many very great authors never won a Nobel and some pretty punk ones have. Similarly, the Peace Prize has often seemed more an exercise in wishful thinking than a recognition of any accomplishment, that of Obama, for example, which even he was forced to admit was absurd.
But drawing attention to elegant writing in a sea of ephemera or seekers after peace in a world of strife is surely worth doing. At first, I admit, I emitted a little moan at the latter award to Malala Yousafzal and Kailash Satyarthi, mostly because it seemed too obvious, too easy on account of Malala’s blazing celebrity.
But this quickly gave way to admiration at the fitness of the decision to celebrate in tandem a Pakistani and an Indian, a Muslim and a Hindu each dedicated to non-violence and opposed to the exploitation or maltreatment of young people. When children are denied a childhood, girls an education, they are stunted for life and their society blighted and impoverished.
As to the Literature Prize, I have never heard of the French author Patrick Modiano, nor has Jane — my friend, neighbor and guide to all things French. But I was immediately taken by a desire to try one of his more than 30 works when they were described as concise and graceful, often using the trappings of mystery or thriller to meditate almost obsessively on the occupation of France and its aftershocks. The fact that his mother was French and his father of Italian-Jewish heritage added to the intrigue.
But here we hit a speed bump. My local library has precisely one book by Modiano, and people faster off the mark than me have created a sizeable waiting list for a crack at it. Undaunted I looked to see what Amazon, Alibris and Fishpond had to offer. Not much. A lot of pricy French editions can be had but that’s way beyond my rudimentary ability to specify eau — sans gaz — and to request the way to the les toilettes.
Apparently Modiano is sparsely translated into English, which sets the Literature Prize apart from all the others. The Nobelists this year come from India, Pakistan, Germany, Japan, Norway, The United States and France. In all other categories the language they speak is immaterial. The work is what matters. But in this category the work is, in part, the dazzling things the lauerate has been able to do with the language.
No doubt English translations of Modiano will be coming fast, along with worldwide celebrity. This too makes the Nobels a lot more inspiring that the normal news of the day. For a change we are treated to a week’s worth of Cinderella stories, as the worthy are recognized and acclaimed, instead of all the attention being focused on the usual dreary parade of evil stepsisters – war, famine, pestilence, and midterm elections. So, hooray for the laureates and the Nobel who contrived a way to recognize them — year after year.