News Detective: Nobel Festivities

Emily in her ball gown.

Emily, SNK’s intrepid reporter, survives a Swedish celebration.

I loved meeting the participants of this year’s Stockholm International Youth Science Seminar. I loved hearing about their countries, learning words in their languages, and practicing the waltz with them. It was also exciting to visit Sweden, try new foods, tour the palace, and learn about the history and science behind the Nobel Prizes.

By far the best part of the week, however, was the grand finale: our visit to the Nobel Prize ceremonies, banquet, and ball.

The Nobels are the most important awards in the world of science. Scientists dream their entire lives of winning one. When they get the call from Stockholm announcing that they’ve won, their lives change forever. They instantly become more famous and celebrated than even they could have imagined.

In Sweden, most people watch the Nobel festivities on TV, like Americans watch the Oscars. Many of them dream of attending one day, though few get the chance to go to the official ceremonies, banquet, and ball.

As a journalist, the chances of getting a ticket to the event are pretty slim. Weeks before I left for Stockholm, I was told that only 30 foreign journalists are allowed in, out of a large pool of applicants. (I later learned that the number is actually 12.) I faxed an application anyway and hoped for the best.

Still, with a week to go before the trip, I had heard nothing. I was starting to expect the worst. Then the e-mail came.

“Dear Ms. Sohn,” it read. “Please find enclosed the confirmation of your tickets for the Nobel festivities 2004. Should you for some reason be prevented from attending any of the events, please let me know as soon as possible.”

I had to read the message several times to believe it was true. I’m still pinching myself to make sure it wasn’t a dream.

We spent most of a day getting ready. The boys picked up their rented tails the night before the ceremony, which happened this year on a Friday. At 10 a.m. that morning, half of the girls went to a salon in central Stockholm, where we had our hair styled. Earlier, everyone had received etiquette and dance lessons.

The girls get their hair styled in preparation for the Nobel banquet and ball.
The girls get their hair styled in preparation for the Nobel banquet and ball.
Emily Sohn

With an entire can of hairspray holding my do in place, I then had to rush to another part of town to pick up my ball gown, which was being hemmed to fit me. I picked up a cappuccino on the way, just to keep me going for what I knew would be a long night ahead.

When I returned to the hostel, I joined the girls, who were putting on their makeup and perfume and other final touches.

At 2:30 p.m., we gathered to take pictures. At 3, the SIYSS coordinators surprised us with a line of limousines that had come to pick us up and drive us around the city for a while—in style.

“I can’t believe we are going to the Nobel Prize ceremonies!” we all kept saying to each other. For a while, everyone in my limo was completely silent, speechless. I, strangely, had butterflies in my stomach. I was just so excited!

We felt like move stars when we arrived at the Stockholm Concert Hall, where hordes of people had gathered to gawk and take pictures. The rest of the afternoon and evening flew by.

The ceremony was a beautiful and formal affair. The King presented the prizes to all of the Laureates, who made three bows—one to the King, one to the Nobel Prize Committee, and one to the audience, who then clapped enthusiastically. An orchestra played music between awards.

When the ceremony was over, we piled into buses that took us to the Stockholm City Hall for the banquet. There were more than 20 chefs, 200 servers, and 10,000 flowers for 1,300 guests. The King and Queen of Sweden sat at the head table with the Laureates, who gave speeches after dessert. The food was excellent. A spectacular opera performance punctuated the meal.

We ate and drank and danced and talked and laughed. Time flew by. Surrounded by so much elegance, I felt like a princess!

One of my favorite things about being a journalist is that I often get access to people, places, and events that I otherwise would not be able to experience. I have watched surgical operations, traveled down the Amazon River in Peru, ridden a camel through the deserts of India, and swum with dolphins in the Bahamas, all in the name of work.

Even so, the Nobel Prize ceremonies were one of the highlights of my career so far. The night gave me a glimpse of what it might be like to be named one of the smartest people on the planet. And I didn’t even have to discover anything to get there.—E. Sohn

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