Wife Of Nobel Winner Tells Of Getting 'The Call'
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
Now, here's a phone call you wouldn't mind getting in the middle of the night: from Sweden, from the Nobel Committee, telling you you've been selected to receive one of the world's most prestigious honors, a Nobel Prize. But what happens next? What do you do? What do you wear? What's it going to be like?
As Anita Laughlin found out when her husband, Bob, along with two colleagues, won the 1998 Nobel Prize in Physics, there is no guidebook. So she wrote one. It's called "Reindeer with King Gustaf: What to Expect When Your Spouse Wins the Nobel Prize." And she's with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
Ms. ANITA LAUGHLIN (Author, "Reindeer with King Gustaf: What to Expect When Your Spouse Wins the Nobel Prize"): Thank you. It's nice to be here, Michel.
MARTIN: So your husband got the call at 2:30 in the morning. Or you - your family got the call at 2:30 in the morning. There's this very funny story about who actually got the call. And so would you just tell that story?
Ms. LAUGHLIN: Well, my youngest son was sound asleep, and he has a Mickey Mouse telephone. And he let it ring for about half an hour and finally picked it up about 2:30 in the morning and came running into our bedroom and shook my husband's toes and said, dad, some guy from Sweden's on the phone. Can I go back to bed now?
And my husband about screamed. And sure enough, he had won, and that started quite a crazy morning.
MARTIN: So just a few hours later, you're in the thick of the frenzy. Would you mind reading us a short excerpt from the book where you talk about what happened next?
Ms. LAUGHLIN: Yes, I would love to. By 5 a.m., there were white television vans pulling up in front of the house. Two huge broadcasting pipes wrapped with cables were laid out on the front lawn, along with several white dishes. People began pouring into the living room from all directions, reminding me vaguely of that house invasion scene in the movie "E.T.," carrying tall lights, miles of cables, cameras and microphones.
Within 15 minutes, approximately 30 strangers were taking up stations inside and outside the house with commanding authority. The phone rang literally every 60 seconds. A female reporter said she needed two things: coffee with milk and a bathroom to do her makeup. So I sent her on her way and wondered if either of our teenage sons were about to get a pleasant surprise.
Returning quickly, the reporter sat on the corner of the couch, plugged in her earphone and waited for her station's cue to begin interviewing Bob. Bob insisted he needed another tie, and we both bolted upstairs to find one.
And the morning just continues getting crazier and crazier, and it was fun.
MARTIN: Well, the thing that I found was funny is your sons were still asleep. That's what I thought was - you know they're two teenagers, right?
Ms. LAUGHLIN: They were young teenagers, and we had so many people downstairs, and they never once knew they were down there.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: You know, one of the themes in this book is clothing. I think we should just get right to the point, which is what do you wear and how many outfits do you need? And the other thing I found fascinating is there is no guidebook. Nobody sends you, like, a little booklet saying�
Ms. LAUGHLIN: No, that's true.
MARTIN: �saying, you know, this is what you need. And I'm amazed by that.
Ms. LAUGHLIN: You know, there's nothing glamorous like it here in the United States. If you look at the Academy Awards, that maybe comes closest. But there, the actresses all have their own dress designers, makeup artists, stylists. The jewelry stores loan them millions of dollars of jewelry to wear.
In my case, you know, we kept getting these engraved invitations from the Royal Swedish Court that we were to have not one, but two dinners with the king. And, of course, that required evening gowns. And my wardrobe at the time was sort of vintage 1980 L.L. Bean, and my husband didn't own a suit. And, you know, physicists aren't known for their fashion sense.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. LAUGHLIN: So it was a pretty mortifying experience to try to guess what you were supposed to take.
MARTIN: Can I ask you how many outfits you did wind up needing for yourself?
Ms. LAUGHLIN: Yes. Well, for me, the Nobel week goes about seven days of receptions and dinners and balls and banquets and parties. So I ended up with three long evening gowns, which, of course, needed shoes, jewelry, all of that stuff. And I ended up with about four cocktail dresses, and you had to look right because you were photographed all the time.
MARTIN: We need to take a short break, but when we come back, we'll continue our conversation with Anita Laughlin. She is the wife of Robert Laughlin, the 1998 winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics. Coming up: She'll tell us what it's like to have dinner with the king of Sweden, to sit next to him, in fact. That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
(Soundbite of music)
MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, a newsmaker interview with Johnnie Carson, President Obama's senior diplomat in Africa. We plan to ask him about the latest news from the continent and about a fascinating encounter he had with Zimbabwe's longtime leader, some say dictator, Robert Mugabe. That conversation in just a few minutes.
But first, we continue our conversation with Anita Laughlin. She is the wife of Robert Laughlin, the 1998 winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics.
Winning the prize was a great triumph, but it also required a lot of work, and there was very little to go on in the way of guidance. So she set out to write a book about her experience: "Reindeer with King Gustaf: What to Expect When Your Spouse Wins the Nobel Prize."
Anita, you and your family were invited to have dinner with the Swedish royal family after the Nobel awards ceremony. And do I have this right: You were seated right next to the king?
Ms. LAUGHLIN: Unfortunately, I got to the palace with my husband, and I had this man with a staff come over and hit it on the floor, and he said - he whispered to me: You're going to be his majesty's dinner partner, so you need to get over to him right away so you can lead the hundred people into the room.
And I sat to his right, and I had Jose Saramago, the literature winner, to my right, and he spoke only Portuguese. The man across from me was the chemistry winner, John Pople, but you couldn't see him because there was all this silver and candles and flowers in the way.
So I couldn't talk to the man on my right or the man across from me, and I thought oh, my God, I've got to talk to the king.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: So what did you talk about?
Ms. LAUGHLIN: Well, I finally got up enough nerve. I turned to him, and I said: Do you have any ghosts in this palace? And he looked at me, and he just loved the question. And he said, well, yes, as a matter of fact, in this room, if you look down at the end of the table, there's been a woman sighted in that window there by my staff many times. And he said, in fact, she died in here.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: Oh, dear.
Ms. LAUGHLIN: And that sort of broke the ice, and we talked the entire two hours, we talked. And I enjoyed myself tremendously.
MARTIN: Oh, that's very nice. I'm so glad to hear that. You know, so how did your sons react to all this? As we mentioned, they were teenagers at the time. Todd was 13 and Nathaniel was 15.
Ms. LAUGHLIN: Exactly.
MARTIN: So were they impressed or just so not impressed?
Ms. LAUGHLIN: They were mortified. I think they were so embarrassed, number one, they had to look nice when they left their hotel room. So most of the time they spent in their rooms, watching Bruce Willis on the "Armageddon" movie that was playing over and over and over, and they ordered hamburgers.
So there would be trays and trays of hamburgers by their door, and if I could physically get into their room, we'd kind of try to find what outfits they were supposed to be wearing for wherever they were going.
You know, they were completely shell-shocked, but they were old enough that they could kind of be on their own, which was lucky for us.
MARTIN: What do you think they think about it now?
Ms. LAUGHLIN: I think they're very, very proud because they understand the enormity of it and the fact that their dad did something that no one else could do. He had tackled a physics problem that everyone else said couldn't be solved. And the prize has enabled us to do a lot of traveling around the world with the boys, which has been fantastic.
So I think it's almost opened up the world to them in a way that wouldn't have happened before the prize.
MARTIN: And that was going to be my next question, which is: How has the prize changed your lives?
Ms. LAUGHLIN: It has put Bob on a world stage in a greater way, and sort of by default, the rest of us experience that in some way. I think in terms of our families, it's like a domino effect is the only way I can describe it, that the sort of pride of this accomplishment dominos through your entire extended family. And in any other way, I don't think it's changed us that much, except that Bob has a lot more visibility and he, his opinions are sought after a great deal more.
MARTIN: Well, how has it changed your life?
Ms. LAUGHLIN: I think, as I mention in the book, I had been married to Bob for 20 years when he won and I knew him very well as a husband and father. But in the past 10 years or 11 years, I've gotten to know him more as a scientist. And I feel like I'm sort of more connected him now, like I've seen the whole person. I feel I'm really almost starting to get to really know him and it's a fun relationship. It really is.
MARTIN: Anita Laughlin is the author of "Reindeer with King Gustaf: What To Expect When Your Spouse Wins the Nobel Prize," which is exactly what the book is about. Her husband Robert won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1998 and she joined us from the studios at Stanford University where he continues to physics.
Anita Laughlin, thank you.
Ms. LAUGHLIN: Oh, thank you, Michel. I've enjoyed it.
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