October 17, 2021

Hearing you’ve won a Nobel is incredible for most people. For some, it just spoils their sleep

At five o’clock in the morning, the esteemed 86-year-old astrophysicist Jim Peebles was woken suddenly by the telephone ringing.

“In previous experience, the only phone calls at that time of night are bad news,” he said. This one was great news. “The opening sentence from the caller was: ‘The Nobel committee has voted to award you the Nobel Prize in Physics. Do you accept?'” Peebles recalled. The wording threw him. Who wouldn’t accept a Nobel Prize? “You know the Bob Dylan fiasco?” he said during a phone interview with CNN. “That might have put the wind up them.”

The “fiasco” Peebles mentions refers to the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature, which was controversially given to an utterly unimpressed Dylan. Aside from being ever-presents on college campuses in the 1960s, little connects Peebles, an expert in theoretical cosmology, with Dylan. But one of the starkest contrasts might lie in their reactions to winning a Nobel — and the songwriter is far from the only laureate whose crowning turned out to be an awkward affair. The five committees are notoriously secretive, fiercely shielding their choices from the outside world — including the laureates themselves, who are told of their victories just minutes before they are announced to the public.

That tight-lipped mantra can lead to some heartening surprises, as it did for Benjamin List — the co-winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry — who was having coffee with his wife when he received the news. “Sweden appears on my phone, and I look at her, she looks at me and I run out of the coffee shop to the street … you know, that was amazing. It was very special. I will never forget,” he told reporters on Wednesday after his victory was announced.