The Nobel Conference: A Dream Continues

Nobel Conference

Richard Q. Elvee - Emeritus Director, Nobel Conference

Genesis

On a winter evening in 1963, after the Nobel prize ceremonies, representatives from Gustavus Adolphus College and officials from The Nobel Foundation gathered at the country home of the Countess Bernadotte outside Stockholm. The Gustavus group, which included President Edgar Carlson, Vice President Reynold Anderson, and Dr. Philip Hench, a Nobel laureate in medicine, made an unusual request. They asked the Nobel Foundation Board to endorse a series of science conferences at Gustavus, letting the Nobel name be used to establish credibility and high standards. Responding to enthusiastic support from several prominent Nobel laureates, the board granted the wish, and in 1965 the College began an annual event convening the world's top research scientists and scholars for an intellectual feast to be spread before students and professors of the Upper Midwest. The Nobel Conference® at Gustavus Adolphus College is the first formal lecture program in the world (outside of Sweden and Norway, where Nobel prizes are awarded) to have the official authorization of The Nobel Foundation, Stockholm.

Finding Our Way

Since its inception, the Nobel Conference has set a standard for timeliness, intellectual inquiry, and free debate of ideas. The 1965 conference, "Genetics and the Future of Man," featured four leading scholars in biology and ethics and three Nobel laureates--Polykarp Kusch, William Shockley, and Edward Tatum—in a discussion of biological engineering and genetic manipulation. With more than 1,000 people attending from 36 colleges and universities and 82 Minnesota high schools, this first Nobel Conference was at the very least a regional success. That success would expand rapidly. In 1967, the Nobel conference on "The Human Mind" attracted 2,000 people to St. Peter and was covered by The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and the Associated Press.

The attention lavished upon the 1967 conference was due in large part to its topicality, as the participants discussed issues including mind control and psychedelic drugs. This topicality would rapidly become one of the hallmarks of the Nobel Conference, as the next several events amply demonstrated.

The 1969 Nobel Conference on communications was highlighted by the speech of linguist and social critic Noam Chomsky. Noted African-American photographer, writer, and filmmaker Gordon Parks illuminated the 1970 Nobel Conference on "Creativity" which also featured a sharp debate between Jacob Bronowski and humanist William Arrowsmith on the sources of creativity.

Running debates between invited scholars and controversial positions during the two-day period have not been unusual. In 1971, one of the most heated confrontations took place between Nobel laureate Glenn Seaborg and theologian Joseph Sittler, who argued whether advances in science and technology were aiding humanity (Seaborg) or destroying the environment (Sittler). And just a year later, theologian Krister Stendahl and Nobel laureate George Wald, both of Harvard, suggested that the "End of Life" was not succeeded by the immortality of the ego. Letters to editors poured into national papers and religious journals protesting the comments of Stendahl and Wald. Not a few of those letters questioned the integrity of the College and its conference, questions that were likely not answered at the next two Nobel Conferences on "The Destiny of Women" and "The Quest for Peace."

Coming of Age

Attempting to address a perception that politics was taking precedence over research science in the selection of Nobel topics, planners of the 1975 conference sought to return it to its roots. "The Future of Science" not only accomplished that goal, but it helped the College celebrate Nobel's first 10 years with an extra measure of pomp and circumstance. In honor of the anniversary, 27 Nobel laureates came to Gustavus for the conference.

The next several conferences focused on physics, chemistry, and biology, with Nobel laureates Murray Gell-Mann, Steven Weinberg, Max Delbruck, and Tjalling Koopmans presenting talks. In 1979, the Nobel Conference grasped an invisible hand and stepped into a new area--economics. "The Future of the Market Economy" aroused controversy through calls from the United States (Kenneth McLennan), Canada (Richard Lipsey), and Sweden (Baron Stig Ramel, president of The Nobel Foundation) for an economy tied more closely to a free market. That controversy was minor, however, compared to the one joined at the 1982 Nobel Conference. With "Darwin's Legacy" as the topic, panelists Richard Leakey, Stephen Jay Gould, Edward O. Wilson, and Nobel laureate Sir Peter Medawar took on both the creationist attack on the theory of evolution and traditional understandings of Darwin's work. The resulting brouhaha, with angry letters again fired off to newspapers and journals, did not dissuade anyone from attending the following conference on "Manipulating Life." Some 4,500 people, including 20 visiting scholars from China, heard Lewis Thomas, Nobel laureate Christian Anfinsen, and four other authorities discuss the latest advances in genetic research.

Into the '90s: On the Cutting Edge

In recent years, the Nobel Conference has continued to attract top-rank scholars from a variety of academic fields. Economist James Buchanan received the 1986 Nobel prize only a week after his appearance at the Nobel Conference exploring "The Legacy of Keynes." Two years later, during the 1988 conference on "The Restless Earth," W.G. Ernst, dean of the school of earth sciences at Stanford University, correctly predicted the San Francisco earthquake of October 1989! And in 1992, medical pioneer Dr. Jonas Salk attracted the largest audience ever for a closing Nobel Dinner when he came to St. Peter to discuss his work at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.

In 1994, a panel led by Nobel laureate David Hubel "unlocked the brain," charting the dramatic advances made in neuroscience in the previous decade. In 1995, the Conference explored "The New Shape of Matter," and once again a conference panelist won a Nobel prize in the very next year: Professor Harold Kroto became the 1996 prizewinner in chemistry for his codiscovery of a previously unknown form of carbon. In 1997, led by Nobel laureate F. Sherwood Rowland, the Conference reviewed 30 years of space science with top Russian and American space scientists present. The 1998 Conference on viruses and infectious diseases attracted an audience of nearly 6,000, including representatives from 99 high schools and 50 colleges and universities from the Upper Midwest and beyond.

The Spirit of Nobel: Realizing the Promise

After more than three 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 almost 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.

Richard Q. Elvee, Director 1981-1999
December 1998