David Mermin

© copyright David Mermin, January 1997.

Friday, December 6. We arrive in Stockholm at 8 a.m. I change a heap of dollars to kronor. Light rain falls. The expected limo does not appear. Our luggage is stuffed with white--tie costume, dark suits, evening gowns, newly acquired white shirts and ties, and provisions for winter weather of all possible kinds. A mini--van takes six of us and a prodigious number of bags to the Grand Hotel. We hand over a heap of kronor to the driver. Our room is not ready. I explore the public facilities. Today's Herald Tribune is posted at eye level in the men's room. Madeleine Albright is the new Secretary of State. Now the room is ready. Conserving my remaining kronor I hand the bellhop a $5 bill.

The Grand Hotel is selectively grand. The Bathroom is magnificent but there are not enough closets for two Nobel guests, no bureaus whatever, and the desk drawers are stuffed with phone books. We set up camp for the week making ingenious use of all available surfaces. We go for a walk. We forgot to bring an umbrella, but never mind. The Grand Hotel provides. We cross a bridge into Gamla Stan, the old town. Cobblestones glisten. The buildings are lovely in the pale light. We return to the Grand for a brief nap. I discover I left important pills home. The Grand Hotel rises to occasion. I am instantly connected with a soothing doctor who asks appropriate questions, consults appropriate texts, and sends me to the nearby Lion pharmacy. Pills are sold in units of 100. I have to acquire 5 times the needed number. An enormous fee for the soothing doctor is added in. I put it on the Visa card.

Night comes at 3pm. We dine at an unpretentious little spot where I hand over my remaining kronor. We take an after dinner walk to an ATM machine and get another heap. Back at the Grand we find Dave Lee and Bob Richardson newly arrived from Gothenburg. They wear tiny gold lapel pins throughout the week so reporters and autograph collectors tell can tell them from their guests. They have already been celebrating for several days in Gothenburg. Bob has a bad cold. Both are very happy and a little high. I get a perfect 8 hours sleep, but the first night is always easy.

Saturday, December 7. The breakfast buffet at the Grand is phenomenal, and attended by many old friends from the glory days of superfluid helium-3. A sunny day! Black stretch limos --- one per laureate --- take the physics and chemistry winners to their lectures. Their guests follow in tourbuses. The lecture hall is surprisingly small. The front rows are reserved for the Nobel guests. Physics (morning) takes precedence over Chemistry (afternoon) and the oldest (Lee) speaks first, the youngest (Doug Osheroff, the graduate student, now 51), last. The atmosphere (and room) are surprisingly reminiscent of APS meetings except that most wear dark business suits (``informal'' attire) and both the overhead and slide projectors are remarkably recalcitrant. The physics lectures are highly evocative of youthful memories from the early 1970's. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive. The lunch is good and large. We resolved before departure not to worry about weight, though Thanksgiving had already taken its toll. The chemistry talks are also fun since buckyballs are really physics. Or is superfluid helium-3 really chemistry? Both of this year's prizes are for something discovered accidentally while looking for something else. It makes for good lectures.

Back to the Grand in the dark. I get a report on the literature prize lecture by Wislawa Szymborska from those who cut chemistry to attend. Who would have expected parallel sessions? We dine at a small unpretentious place frequented by the locals. I hand over a big part of the replenished hoard. I am awake half the night.

Sunday, December 8th. The Laureates are busy all day with preparation for a CNN show and a press conference. Their guests are free, the weather is dry, the city is beautiful. The Art museum is amusing and has three great Rembrandts. I collapse at 2, awakening from my nap in darkness at 3. The bus takes us to an informal reception. I wear the blue suit acquired last year for my son's wedding. There is sensational smoked salmon and other unidentifiable delicious fishy things. I spend the party ingesting delicacies in the wrong room but realize my error in time to make the bus back to the Grand. There is a great reunion of the old helium-3 crowd at dinner. The laureates can't make it, having a mandatory ``Informal dinner (dark business suit)'' at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. We go for the buffet. First cold fish, then cold meat, then hot fish, then hot meat. The cold fish is so good I break the rule: first cold fish, then more cold fish, then stuffed. The bill is enormous. We pool all our cash and have barely enough left to ransom our coats from the smiling attendant, at 10 kronor per. I refill the wallet at the nearest ATM machine, and then off to bed. I am awake most of the night.

Monday, December 9th. We skip the bus tour of Stockholm to attend the economics lecture. Our guest status is again good for front row seats. We hear about the theory of auctions. There are integrals and derivatives. It's like physics except physics works. The American laureates have lunch with the Ambassador. Poor laureates. The guests have now learned not to eat lunch between the breakfast buffet and the late afternoon reception. Today's dwarfs yesterday's: the Apotheosis of Informal Dress. Fortunately I am now wearing my black suit, which blends right in. Two enormous rooms flank one gigantic one. Food and drink are impossible to resist. I succumb to earthly delights until the time to depart for dinner in a gorgeous baroque clubroom with the Swedish Cornell Alumni. The Laureates are also allowed to attend. Their stomach capacity is even more prodigious than ours, but they've also been working harder. I sleep all night.

Tuesday, December 10th. The big day. The women have their hair set in the morning and are confined to quarters thereafter. The laureates are off at a mandatory rehearsal (casual). I take a long walk along the water to City Hall to check it out. There are many delivery vans and mysterious stacks of wood. Strange waterfront sculptures. I return to the Grand by way of the Cafe Access, discovered before leaving Ithaca in a Web exploration of Stockholm. It is the only bargain in Sweden: 20 kronor for half an hour on the Internet. (A bratwurst from a street peddler costs 25.) The system manager doubles as waiter. My treatment shifts from brusque to cordial when he learns he is logging in a Nobel guest. I send e-mail greetings to the kids, and a bulletin of events to date to the Cornell Physics Department.

Back at the Grand I don the required white tie and tails. All in the Cornell delegation --- even the laureates, who unaccountably have been given an unprogrammed moment --- meet in our finery in the huge 2nd floor elevator lobby with half a dozen cameras. Bulbs flash. There is general hilarity. Then off we go to the Concert Hall, laureates in their limos, guests in their ``Nobelbil'' (the old buses with new signs.) Police hold back throngs as we ascend the majestic steps. The throngs are awaiting their Queen and not interested in us. We climb many more internal steps and deposit our coats in a gigantic cloakroom. Advance warnings of inadequate toilet facilities prove to be a scurrilous rumor. As guests of the oldest laureate in the number one field we get front row center balcony seats. The view is superb. I never knew what ``glitter'' meant before. The most opulent production of Fledermaus falls far short of this tableau. The Concert Hall glows. We spot the laureate families in the front row orchestra. Members of the Swedish Academy are seated on the stage. A full orchestra and singers are ready in a great balcony above it. Nine empty bright red chairs stage are stage front left; three empty dark chairs, stage front right. I admire my fellow members of the audience. There are jewels and medals in all directions. I check the abundant flowers festooning edges of balcony. Real, of course. Is this a dream?

There is a flourish of trumpets promptly at 4 followed by the entrance of the Laureates to an obscure Mozart march. They are ordered by field and within field by age and therefore led by the Cornell delegation. I burst unexpectedly into tears of joy. It is remarkably like a wedding. The laureates seat themselves. Royal music follows. All rise as the King, Queen, and Royal Aunt enter. The King sits down opposite the laureates a split second before the Queen. The Royal Aunt and everybody else follow. The hundredth anniversary of the death of Nobel is the occasion for a long biographical speech. Swedish is heard for first time in the festivities, but pamphlets with English text are kindly provided. Learn that Nobel invented the word ``dynamite'' as well as the stuff. ``Dynamite'' surely describes the present scene.

The orchestra contributes the overture from a Swedish opera, a Finnish soprano gives us a recitative and aria from Idomeneo, and the orchestra concludes with a little Mendelssohn. The awards begin, physics first, of course. We are still in Swedish, but English libretti are provided. I proudly recognize a sentence of my own from an old nominating letter. The libretto has blanks where italic v's should be: Physics and Chemistry citations talk of disco eries, Economics citation of incenti es, and a poem of Szymborska is entitled Disco ery. This is the only discernible imperfection in the whole show, possibly put there deliberately lest the gods themselves become jealous.

One by one the laureates are called forth to engage in complex hand maneuvers with the King. An attendant hands the King a large citation with a box containing the medal resting on top. The King extends same to the laureate with his left hand. The laureate grasps the other side of the citation with his left hand. With the left hands thus indirectly linked, the right hands make direct contact in a handshake beneath the citation, shielding the pressed flesh from direct public view. After the shake the King lets go and the laureate is left holding the citation alone. The Medal, though clearly not attached, does not fall off. There are trumpet flourishes while the laureate bows to the King, the members of Academy, and the audience. All burst into warm applause during the laureate's normal --- you don't have to walk backwards --- return to his red chair.

After physics and chemistry come Sibelius, then Medicine, Grieg, then Literature. Szymborska bows in the wrong directions, earning a prolonged ovation. Don Giovanni then sings seductively from on high accompanied by Leporello playing a real mandolin, before switching into an exceptionally spirited ``Finch han dal vino''. Don Giovanni does not shatter his glass on the dignitary loaded floor below him, and the awards conclude with Economics. William Vickrey, who died a few days after the announcement, is represented by an old friend. All stand for the National Anthem as the King, Queen, and Royal Aunt leave the stage. The audience reluctantly drifts toward the cloakrooms. Photographers rush onto the stage. They all want Szymborska. Family members of the laureates join them on stage, everybody shaking hands with everybody else. It is eerily evocative of the post--debate rituals in the recent American presidential election.

We collect our coats and make our way down many stairs to the street, past admiring throngs of Stockholmers, to a great line of red municipal buses, each become a Nobelbil for the occasion. Each Nobelbil is filled to capacity. Student riders kindly offer seats to the ladies. I glance around at fellow white--tie straphangers. Was ever a stranger sight seen in the Arctic night? Off we go to the Stadhus, transformed from the City Hall I visited that morning into an enchanted palace. The logs have become great bonfires on the waterfront. Various sinuous pieces of sculpture noted by the water in the morning are also now ablaze. From the entrance to the courtyard to the top of the great stairway in the opposite corner is a double row of candle carrying cubscouts between whom we pass. I smile at the scouts, I frown at the scouts, I salute the scouts. No eye contact is possible. This is serious business. At the end of this corridor of fire we emerge in an enormous hall --- the grandest cloakroom of them all. We deposit our coats emerging like butterflies in full regalia.

How do you seat 1300 dinner guests? It's easy. You hand each of them a 71 page book listing the table (A for the head table, holding 88, 1--65 for the other tables, variously holding 10, 20, or 30) and the seat number at that table for each diner. The diners are listed alphabetically except for the King, Queen, and Royal Aunt, who appear in that order at the top of page 1. You attach to the back of the book an enormous fold--out map of the banquet hall, showing every table and every position at each. Finally you include a separate blown--up map of each table, giving the names and positions. This enables all to double check what they found on the alphabetic list, as well as giving them the names of the neighbors they encounter when they have made their way --- as they do with surprising ease --- to their places.

When the 1200+ occupants of Tables 1-65 are all in place on the vast floor of this roofed in Venetian courtyard, the orchestra launches into a marche triomphale and the diners rise, as from high up in a far corner of the enormous enclosure a slow procession emerges onto a balcony, traverses the entire length of a side wall, and descends a monumental staircase at the far wall, to take their places at the head table (A) that stretches back nearly the full length of the floor. The music ends, the King is seated, so are we all. ``Do you mind if I smoke?'' asks the woman on my left and I realize at once that I am coming down with a sore throat. ``No, of course not,'' I smile gallantly, and she chain smokes her way through the rest of the evening.

There is a toast to the King from the Chairman of the Board of the Nobel Foundation. If my Swedish serves, it goes, in full: ``To the King!'' His Majesty responds with a toast to the memory of Alfred Nobel: ``Alfred Nobel!'' he says. At this signal the wild rumpus starts. In spite of a prodigious array of glass-ware and cutlery per place setting, the meal consists of just 3 superb courses. Each begins with a musical procession of perhaps 150 waiters following the same lofty course taken by the occupants of Table A, but fanning out at the end to cover the entire floor. The exercise is carried out with military precision, under the direction of a wait-conductor positioned high on the stairway. The effect is uncanny. All across the vast hall the clatter of serving spoon against platter breaks out simultaneously and ends just as abruptly. The delivery of the first course achieves its effect simply by the shock value of seeing so many platters balanced so high descending so massive a staircase from so close to the distant ceiling. The drama of the second course is intensified by flourishes with flags and a more elaborate musical setting.

But the descent of the third course (Glace Nobel) left me gaping in astonishment. It began, quietly enough, with a dimming of the lights. Then two great canopies flutter down out of nowhere and manage to form a kind of roof within the roof over the great staircase which is suddenly engulfed in a cascade of waste-deep white cloud that comes pouring down from the top, heralding the appearance there of two gentlemen in Turkish garb leading two proud and enormous dogs whose stately descent is followed by the costumed singers and their entourage who give us two exquisite solos, a spine-tingling duet, and a dazzling quartet. Saint-Saens, Bizet, Gounod, and Offenbach are heard and at the moment where it has become so unbelieviably beautiful to both eye and ear that one can hardly bear it, the two sopranos having ascended on a bench to a point half way between floor and ceiling, still courageously belting it out from their perilous perch, there appear.... you say, elephants? --- and indeed, if the ceremony in the Concert Hall was Fledermaus, then the banquet is closer to Aida --- but no, there appear at the top of the still smoking stairs 150 waiters bearing massive glowing trays of ice cream for the revellers below. Waiters descend, singers ascend, spoons clink, plates clatter, and a woman's voice whispers in my ear, ``you're the last one --- would you like everything left on my tray.'' ``Yes,'' I gasp gratefully, and soothe my aching throat with a triple portion of panache de sorbet aux mures sauvages des champs et de parfait a la vanille as my companion lights up yet another.

The brief after dinner ``two minute'' speeches by the eldest Laureate in each category are inevitably an anticlimax. Only Szymborska honors the time limit. I mediate on the narrow line dividing magnificence from bad taste. What had just taken place was unquestionably magnificent, but whether it could be pulled off outside of a monarchy is open to doubt.

The King rises as do we all, and the occupants of Table A make their exit over the reverse of the route they followed in. As the last of them mounts the great staircase, we occupants of Tables 1-65 follow them up into heaven, another enormous room covered with golden mosaics, filled with dancers and containing a cash (!) bar at the far end. The laureates are up there, still hard at work, being interviewed for TV in the back room. The rest of us sway with the crowd. Exhaustion overcomes me and we tear ourselves away for the 11 o'clock bus back to the Grand. Resisting the temptation to move on to the ``Nobel Nightcap'', a post--party party put on by students, we stagger home. Doffing my finery, I am Cinderella again, and lie awake the entire night, overcome by the splendour of it all and a bad cough.

Wednesday, December 11th. Stagger off to the breakfast buffet to pour bowls of hot oatmeal and honey down my miserable throat. The laureates are there, bright and chipper. They all went to the Nobel Nightcap --- how could they not, poor souls. The faint of heart among them left at 3, the bravest stayed until 5. It dawns on us that if poor Professor Vickrey had not died within days of hearing of his Nobel Prize, the award ceremony would surely have finished him anyway. What will be will be. Revived by the oatmeal, I find it impossible to resist a little pate, cheese, herring, and a croissant with my tea.

I finish breakfast just in time to catch the bus for the CNN symposium in the Old Parliament building. I have checked with my map and determined that this bus ride covers a distance of no more than 300 meters, but since I don't know what door we're supposed to enter I take the bus anyway, as do all the other guests. It turns out the driver doesn't know what door either, but eventually we get in, deposit our coats, ascend another not quite so monumental staircase to find at the top a massive luncheon buffet. ``Feed a cold and starve a fever'' comes to mind so I load my plate very selectively. A touch of this, a morsel of that. This and that are present in enough varieties to load the plate. The herring is like butter. I ignore the blandishments of the wine attendant and wash it all down with mineral water. ``Terminal dispepsia'' mutters my luncheon companion.

The CNN show seems an exercise in incoherence. A manic leering moderator who can't stay on the subject for more than two sentences, six perky --- God knows how they do it --- Laureates in make--up, trying to say sensible things in spite of the centrifugal orchestration and lunatic premise of the whole show (the great minds of the 20th century address the great minds of the 21st). I flee the old parliament the moment it ends for the tranquility of the Cafe Access, and send a brief summary of the past 24 hours, having found from CNN the proper voice, to wit: ``from the Cafe Access, Stockholm, [pause] I'm David Mermin.'' Starting to hallucinate. Passing through the Grand we encounter the astounding, indestructable laureates, smiling and spiffy in white tie and tails again. Off to the Palace they are, for their private dinner with the King. We stagger off to our own dinner. Back in the room we watch the CNN show on TV. On the screen it looks polished and witty. Amazing. They have conditioned us to accept rubbish as profound when we see it on the tube. Up all night coughing and sneezing. I have acquired the full blown Nobel cold.

Thursday, December 12th. Photographs of the banquet arrive at the Grand after breakfast in about 25 numbered notebooks. You put your name opposite the ones you want and give the Nobel Foundation your address. They will send you a collection of photos and a bill, I realize I can go nowhere this day. Back to bed. I sleep (yes, sleep!) from noon to two. I awake refreshed. Long walk, museum, long walk back, dinner, bed. Awake all night, of course. Shouldn't take naps.

Friday, December 13th. Santa Lucia day. As we descend to breakfast we pass an ascending procession of candle carrying maidens in white gowns. The lead maiden wears a five-candle crown (centered square). The accompanying representative of the Nobel Foundation explains as she passes us that early morning visits in the bedroom are mandatory for the Laureates (who were given Thursday night off, presumably to rest up for Friday morning) and optional for their guests, if ordered the night before. (From the concierge? Room service? Housekeeping?) Nobody told us, but never mind. They will appear at breakfast in 15 minutes. I dash down to load my plate at the buffet, dash back to the room for my camera, and as I sit down at the table it begins. The lights dim. Distant voices intoning the famous Neapolitan ditty at half tempo increase in volume until the five-candled maiden appears and leads her parade straight to our table where it stops. A 15 minute serenade follows of a capella rennaisance tunes and Christmas ditties in candle light. The final number is a reprise of the entering Santa Lucia, in the course of which the five-candled maiden slowly turns and leads her crew out. As the final ``Santa Lucia'' (``c'' pronounced like ``s'') fades to a whisper, the lights go back on. Wolf down my morning repast: more oatmeal with honey (for sore throat), herring (because its there), prosciutto (the same), assorted fruits and pastries. Finish in time to catch the bus for Uppsala.

The temperature is well below freezing for the first time and it starts to snow. We note many cars in the ditch on the way to Upsala including two taxis, presumably on their way to the airport with passengers. Tomorrow it will be our turn to make the attempt. I waive the option of a tour of frigid Uppsala for the warmth of the auditorium in which the physics laureates give miniversions of their Nobel lectures. At the post-lecture reception, in yet another grand setting, Richardson recommends strong drink for my laryngitis. It cured his. Beer and wine flow at the sumptuous luncheon in the great hall of the Castle, but the laryngitis gets worse. Not strong enough. Doze on the bus back to Stockholm. It gets colder and colder.

Back at the Grand, the handful of remaining guests, now only enough to fill a third of a bus, set out in full formal regalia for the Lucia Dinner given by students at the Stockholm University Union. I can do nothing but croak, not entirely inappropriate as it turns out, since the pervading theme of the evening is The Order of the Ever Smiling and Yumping Green Frog. Confusion reigns at the banquet hall, a scaled down version of Tuesday's extravaganza, but still large enough to require books and maps, which nobody thought to provide to the guests. Eventually somebody produces a list and we find our seats.

The meal is punctuated by an endless series of toasts, each accompanied by a song, lustily belted out by the toastmasters, diners, and those guests who are able to follow in the kindly provided Swedish librettos. Throat aching and mindful of Richardson's advice, I take a double dose at each of the three Schnapps toasts. The assuredly beneficial effects on the larynx are countered by an increased desire to join in the singing, which is now accompanied by the linking of arms, and a rhythmic longitudinal swaying. Wine and beer ease the pain again, ice cream appears in a great burst of sparks, the lights go out and....the soft, slow distant sounds of Santa Lucia float down the stairs, followed by another five-candled maiden and her white gowned retinue. The now familiar litany of sweet and slightly mournful tunes unexpectedly modulates into a round of finger snapping, white gowned hip wiggling hotcha-cha, which just as suddenly flips back into the final worshipful round of Santa Lucia as they slowly and softly float away back up the stairs,

More toasts follow. The swaying is now transverse as well as longitudinal. If Tuesday's banquet was Aida, then this one is Faust. The toastmaster announces that the bus that was to meet us at midnight will not appear until 1. As it turns out this is a matter of some importance, since between midnight and 1 the culminating event of the week takes place: the induction of the Laureates into The Order of the Ever Smiling and Yumping Green Frog. The bedlam of the scene in which this takes place is impossible to convey and details of the lunatic ceremony are lost in the fog, but somehow it manages to culminate in all six of the 1996 Nobel Laureates in Physics and Chemistry lined up together and uttering cries of "Rivet, rivet" while squatting on their haunches and yumping up and down. A fitting end to a can-you-top-this week.

Saturday, December 14th. We go out into the freezing night at 1 and there is no bus. The toastmaster has lied. There are no taxis. We try to thumb rides as the six black limos pull out, but they are all full. We peer off into the distance. Nothing. A representative of the Nobel foundation appears, waves her magic cellular phone, and an unscheduled municipal bus pulls up at the Student Union and takes us home, free of charge. I get to bed at 3. Sleep like a log! Dream I am King. I get up at 7, sore throat gone! We take a van to airport. I croak to the SAS representative that I do not wish to be seated two rows from the smoking section. Sorry, she says, plane full, but wait a minute. We get bumped up to business class and ride home amidst parting salvos of salmon, herring, and champagne. At home I weigh myself. Three pounds less than when I left! The final bit of Nobel magic.