Life After Winning A Nobel Prize

All this week, we've been learning about this year's class of Nobel laureates. Rather than talk more about what this year's class did to deserve the award, we're going to focus on the award itself, and the effect it's had on previous winners. NPR's Robert Siegel and Mary Louise Kelly talk to three past winners — Martin Chalfie, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2008; Elinor Ostrom, winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics; and Orhan Pamuk, winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

And I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

All this week, we've been learning about this year's class of Nobel laureates in medicine, physics, chemistry, and today, the prize for literature went to Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa.

Right now, though, rather than talk more about what this year's class did to deserve the award, we're going to focus on the award itself and the effect it has had on previous winners.

SIEGEL: Winning a Nobel Prize comes with a number of perks - a medal, of course, a Nobel diploma. There's also a cash prize worth more than a million dollars. Though for multiple winners in one category, the cash prize must be divided up. And finally, perhaps most importantly, there is the cachet, a Nobel is a Nobel.

We asked three past winners to tell us what difference the cash and the cachet made in their lives. Last year, I asked Orhan Pamuk, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006.

Mr. ORHAN PAMUK (Novelist): It made my life more busier, but then, it made also me more responsible person. Because now that I have even more readers, I want to write even better, in a sense. That all the things that I have dreamt about, addressing new readers, publishing new books, having a communication with readers from Vietnam to, say, Argentina, now I have all these readers, and it makes one so busy. But my love of literature is as alive as ever. A Nobel Prize was not a retirement pension for me. It just came in the middle of my career.

SIEGEL: But you're saying it adds to a certain sense of responsibility that you feel.

Mr. PAMUK: Yes. Because I'm - perhaps, I have received Nobel Prize at a relativity young age, I think I have to get going.

SIEGEL: Yesterday, Orhan Pamuk told me that he spent some of the prize money on his not-yet-opened Museum of Innocence in Istanbul. The first real-life museum devoted to the artifacts of a fictional story, his novel, "The Museum of Innocence."

KELLY: Now, to a Nobel of a more recent vintage. Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize in economics last year for her analysis of economic governance. We've reached her in Bloomington, Indiana, where she lives and where she teaches at Indiana University. And, Professor Ostrom, how's the last year gone?

Professor ELINOR OSTROM (Indiana University): Well, you have no warning of the heavy, heavy demands on you afterwards. It is a very great thrill to win a Nobel Prize, and I'm very, very appreciative. But I was not fully prepared for the amount of interest around the world. And I'm coping, but it's been very intense.

KELLY: A lot of calls from people like us wanting to interview you and on speaking invitations, that type of thing. Is that what you mean?

Prof. OSTROM: Yes, yes. I've been receiving about 15 invitations a week, and I am no longer able to accept any talks during 2011.

KELLY: Wow.

Prof. OSTROM: And the accumulation for 2012 is piling up, and I'm going to have to tackle that in another couple of weeks.

KELLY: Well, do you enjoy doing this? It sounds like you're traveling a lot, meeting interesting people.

Prof. OSTROM: Yes, I am traveling a lot, and I do enjoy it. But I also am teaching, and I have ongoing research and graduate students. And keeping up with it all is a challenge.

KELLY: Well, I have to ask, what did you do with the prize money?

Prof. OSTROM: Oh, well. We have a very, very active research center here at Indiana University. And our foundation is very responsible, so I gave the full sum to the Indiana University Foundation as part of an endowment to support ongoing research.

KELLY: You know, here's one thing I wonder. Winning a prize as huge and prestigious as the Nobel could, I guess, influence you in a number of different ways. And I wonder does it, in some way, take a bit of the pressure off to have had your work - your lifetime's work recognized at that kind of level? Does it take a bit of the pressure off in terms of what you feel you still have to do?

Prof. OSTROM: Oh, no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KELLY: No?

Prof. OSTROM: I wasn't aiming to win a prize. And so winning it doesn't take pressure off in terms of future research. Colleagues and I have been puzzling about a variety of key issues. It's a big challenge, and we're still working on that.

KELLY: You were kind enough to speak to us last year when you won. And you are the first woman who won the Economics Nobel. I remember when we spoke to you last year, we asked you about that and whether this opens the door for more opportunities for women. Have you been able to see any of that come to fruition?

Prof. OSTROM: Yes, I think. I'm very pleased that women will not be facing the conditions that I faced where I was repeatedly asked why I needed education when I would be barefoot pregnant and in the kitchen.

KELLY: Oh, my.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. OSTROM: So I think that phrase isn't going to be repeated to current graduate students as frequently as I heard it.

KELLY: Good. Well, it's been great speaking with you. Thanks so much, Elinor Ostrom.

Prof. OSTROM: Okay. Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: That's Professor Elinor Ostrom of Indiana University. She won the Nobel Prize in Economics last year. And finally, Martin Chalfie, who shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry two years ago. He's a professor of biological science. He's at Columbia University. Welcome to the program.

Professor MARTIN CHALFIE (Biological Sciences, Columbia University): Nice to be here.

SIEGEL: And what difference did the Nobel make to you and to your work life?

Prof. CHALFIE: Well, it had several effects. The first was that I got invited to give a lot more interviews and a lot more talks. And the types of talks I've been asked to give have been, for the most part, not on the specifics of the research I'm doing now. But many times I'm invited to talk to more general audiences about scientific research, a little bit about the work that led to the Nobel. But it has given me a real chance to get to connect with elementary and high school students.

SIEGEL: Well, were graduate students suddenly begging to be in your lab, beating down your door?

Prof. CHALFIE: No, just the opposite. And actually, some of my friends have remarked about this, too, is that the number of people that apply to the lab, certainly, doesn't grow and may actually plummet. No one is quite sure why that is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. CHALFIE: Maybe they think that we're going to be horribly intimidating people. I'm not really sure what it is. I'm still looking for people in my lab.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: You think...

Prof. CHALFIE: I hope this helps.

SIEGEL: You think there's a possible assumption of the insufferable Nobel laureate that you're running up against?

Prof. CHALFIE: Maybe, yes. It's incorrect, of course, but...

SIEGEL: And the money - what did you do with the money, the prize?

Prof. CHALFIE: Well, the money is a funny thing. I think people hear about this massive amount of money that people get. It's a very nice sum, and I'm very grateful for it. But there's a number of things that happened to the money. And for my - in my particular case, the exchange rate tanked between the announcement and the distribution. And, of course, it was a prize that was shared with three people.

SIEGEL: Uh-huh.

Prof. CHALFIE: But the lion's share of the prize money, since the Reagan presidency, when the tax codes were changed, has gone to the government. Because before Reagan, the rule was if you won an international prize, you kept the money. It was tax-free. Now, it's taxed. So 50 percent of it went immediately to the city, the state and the federal government. The rest of it is going to help put my daughter through college.

SIEGEL: Yes, there's an interesting premise there that if you win a Nobel Prize, you can pay your daughter's tuition in college today in America.

Prof. CHALFIE: Well, I hope to do that. Yes.

SIEGEL: Professor Chalfie, thank you very much for talking with us.

Prof. CHALFIE: Nice talking to you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's Martin Chalfie, professor at Columbia University, who shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry two years ago.

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