Origin & Vision
The Nobel Conference came into being in 1963 when, emboldened by the smashing success of a gathering on campus of 26 Nobel laureates for the dedication of the Nobel Hall of Science as the first American memorial to Alfred Nobel, President Edgar Carlson and other college officials approached the Nobel Foundation for permission to hold an annual science conference using the Nobel name.
The vision for this conference was twofold:
- to bring cutting-edge science issues to the attention of an audience of students and interested adults; and
- to engage the panelists and the audience in a discussion of the moral and societal impact of these issues.
After more than four decades, the original promise of the Nobel Conference continues to be realized. It is essentially the promise of Alfred Nobel’s testament, first ventured by the dying chemist-entrepreneur more than 100 years ago. It is characterized by an endeavor to launch international cooperation within the sciences and other cultural activities, and by cooperation based on reason in the service of humanity. This is the spirit in which the Nobel Conference carries on its work. The festivities and the glamour of the annual event should not draw away from the core scientific values on which the conference was founded. Alfred Nobel himself was a prodigious and dedicated worker, scientist, technician, and entrepreneur—a committed idealist. But he was also a gentle man and a generous host, one who was not above adding festivity and luster to seriousness and toil.
Owing largely to the efforts of our two former conference directors, Chaplain Richard Q. Elvee and Timothy Robinson, these conferences have remained true to that original vision. If you look at the topics and panelists on our website you’ll see the following characteristics:
While occasionally wandering into economics, the social sciences, and even philosophy or aesthetics, most conferences have dealt with the kinds of science issues for which Nobel Prizes are awarded.
Beginning with the help of an advisory committee comprising Nobel laureates such as Glenn Seaborg, Philip Hench, and Sir John Eccles, the conferences have been consistently successful in attracting the world’s foremost authorities as speakers. Sixty-two Nobel laureates have served as speakers.
One of the enduring features has been the ability of our organizing committees to anticipate important scientific developments. In 1999, Nobel XXXV, "Genetics in the New Millennium," took place in the midst of the race to complete the human genome. In 2000, while demonstrations marked the meeting of the World Trade Organization, we discussed "Globalization 2000: Economic Prospects and Challenges." Nobel Conference XLIII, “Heating Up, The Energy Debate,” in 2007 marked perhaps the beginning of our most recent energy crisis. The conference director and faculty committees are always open to suggestions for upcoming conferences.
Consideration of Societal Impact
In addition to the basic scientific questions, these conferences have also asked questions like: What does it mean? What good is it? Could it be potentially harmful? Or, as Chaplain Elvee once put it: “Where is God in all of this?” We plan to continue to focus the themes for the Nobel Conference on the sciences and economics, but through the lens of Science, Technology, and Society.
Public Discussion of Science
Following each talk is a panel discussion involving all panelists in a public vetting of the presentation and topic. Audience members (local and Internet) participate by submitting questions to the speaker and other panelists and become active participants in the dialogue.
Chuck Niederriter, Former Director
Gustavus Adolphus College