The Nobel Prizes and the Public Image of Science: A Symposium at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, May 11–12, 2017

The notion of “excellence” in science has been turned into a cliché through the indiscriminate use of it for policy and branding purposes. Centres of excellence are ubiquitous, whereas real excellence is rare. The Nobel Prize has since 1901 occupied a unique position in the reward system of science and has been considered a gold standard of accomplishment, whether associated with serendipity, genius or excellence.

Because of their instantaneous renown, the Nobel Prizes offer a great opportunity to study the public visibility of research since the early 20th century. Some Laureates in the sciences have had a remarkable impact on societal perception and discourse about science. The aim of the symposium is to discuss the media impact of the prizes in order to explore what it tells us about how ideals of science, including those of individual achievement and personae, have been communicated. The symposium will hence be focused on the communication and visibility dynamics of the Nobel prizes in the sciences and their relation to the public image of science and scientists.

Contributions are given in the following areas:

  • Case studies of Nobel Laureates in the public sphere in a historical and sociological perspective;
  • Analysis of media coverage and social conversation (also through digital media) about the Nobel assignments in the sciences;
  • Historical/anthropological studies of the Nobel ceremony as ritual;
  • Studies of the broader social and cultural impact of individual assignments and Laureates;
  • Studies and analyses of Nobel Laureates’ representation in fiction (e.g. cinema);
  • Analysis of Nobel speeches and lectures.

Draft Programme

Introduction: S. Widmalm, Uppsala; M. Bucchi, Trento

  1. Condit (UGA), Challenges Regarding Scientific Character for the Nobel Prize Speeches
  2. Bergwik (Stockholm), Prizes and private lives: Svante Arrhenius and the gender politics of scientific elites
  3. Fahy (DCU), The Character of genius: How Scientific American profiled Nobel Laureates in the 1990s
  4. Fuller (UK) The Watson-Crick Parallax: The Nobel Prize as an Enabler of Scientific Heterodoxy
  5. Gouyon (UCL) From News to Storytelling: The representation of Nobel Prize winners on British television, 1962–2004
  6. Brodesco (Trento) Nobel Laureates in Fiction: from Robert Bekämpfer des Todes (1939) to A Beautiful Mind (2001); from to La fin du monde (1931) to Futurama (Matt Groening, 1999–2013); from The Prize (1963) to Breaking Bad (2008–2013).
  7. Tsabari (Techion) Nobel Prizes as a teachable moment: Public information seeking of Laureates and their scientific work following Nobel prize announcements

Discussants: Nils Hansson (Düsseldorf), Gustav Källstrand (Nobel Museum)

From above: On a scientifically privileged position

An international workshop, “From above: On a scientifically privileged position,” takes place 12–13 January at the Academy of Sciences as part of the research program Science and Modernization in Sweden.

The Earth seen from Apollo 17. NASA.

The aim of this workshop is to explore the modern history of scientific technologies, cultural practices and aesthetic conventions that produced extra-ordinary views from above. The workshop focuses on the period 1750–2000 and investigates what a history of observations from an elevated position looks like. Instruments, at times intertwined with the vessels which carry them, have a history which give them meaning far beyond the task of measurement. Positions involving overview have been considered privileged. Accordingly, the workshop also aims at exploring imagery as well as cultural narratives of overview relating the highs and the skies to power, indeed to ideas about freedom, paradise, afterlife and the eternal.

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Programme Research: Scientific Communication in a Period of Institutional Change

Flora och faunavårdskonferensBy Jenny Beckman

Department of History of Science and Ideas

Uppsala University

What is a scientific publication and why was this question so important in the early 19th century? Scientists did not agree how scientific results should be published, in terms of language or medium. At the same time, publications and establishing priority of discovery were increasingly important to scientists seeking positions in schools and universities.
The famous Swedish chemist Jöns Jacob Berzelius (1779-1848) participated in many priority disputes in his field, and also engaged in institutional reforms, in launching scientific journals, and in trying to set a standard for proper scientific publication. In this project, I will use Berzelius’ practices and pronouncements on publication to study norms of scientific communication in a period of institutional change. I argue that Berzelius’ view is a particularly revealing one: an international figure in chemistry, publishing mainly in Swedish, and wielding his power through translations and international disciples.
The purpose of the project is threefold. First, to shed light on the development of the scientific journal as a medium, and modern norms of publication. Second, to contribute to the discussion of publication practices as an integral part of the “great transformation” of scientific institutions in the early 19th century. Third, Berzelius’ particular problems of communicating with a wide chemical community from his peripheral position demonstrate the importance of a transnational perspective on these developments.


Berzelius painted by Olof Johan Södermark (1790-1848). (Wikipedia commons)


Programme research: Pro-German Networks Among Swedish Scientists During the Third Reich


By Sven Widmalm

Department of History of Science and Ideas

Uppsala University


During the Nazi period a fair number of Swedish academics became involved with ”pro-German” networks and activities. Often these were centred around Swedish organizations, like the Swedish-German clubs that existed in several Swedish towns or the Swedish-German National Association (Riksföreningen Sverige Tyskland), also with several local branches. German ”cultural politics”, organized by a variety of institutions including the German legation in Stockholm, promoted scientific and cultural exchange as a vehicle for propaganda and also to encourage concrete collaboration.

Hans von Euler-Chelpin sitting on the left and also hanging on the wall in the middle.

Hans von Euler-Chelpin sitting on the left and also hanging on the wall in the middle.

In this sub project a central figure in the pro-German network, the chemist and Nobel Prize Laureate Hans von Euler-Chelpin, will be investigated. von Euler (for short) was involved in several of the above-mentioned activities and institutions and was a frequent guest in Germany almost to the last days of the regime (and then again after the war). He was also a leading member of the Royal Academy of Sciences. By choosing him as a point of departure, and to some extent also his close friends Herman Nilsson-Ehle (geneticist and plant breeder of world renown) and Sven Hedin (geographer, writer etc.), an academic fifth column will be mapped and characterized as to political and scientific ideals.

Programme Research: Ecological Economics – Development of an Interdisciplinary Research Field


By Anna Tunlid

Department of Arts and Cultural Sciences

Lund University


Ecological economics emerged in the late 1980s as a new interdisciplinary research field. Contributions to the new field were diverse but included among others perspectives from systems ecology, different strands of economics, energy studies and general system theory. A common view among the different initiators were that –the human economy and the ecological systems were deeply intertwined, and hence that ecology and other natural sciences had to cooperate with the social sciences, including economics, in order to deal with the environmental problems.

The Beijer Institute at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Sweden has played a central role for the establishment and development of ecological economics. The institute initially had a focus on energy and human ecology, but was in the early 1990s transformed to the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics. Driving actors in this process were among others the systems ecologists Bengt-Owe Jansson and AnnMari Jansson, and the economist Karl-Göran Mäler. The Beijer institute has since then become one of the main institutes within the international community of ecological economics.


Image: Wikipedia commons

The aim of this project is to examine the development of ecological economics at the Beijer Institute, including both conceptual, institutional, and policy perspectives. The study takes an historical approach and will have a particular focus on two interrelated aspects, firstly how nature and society are incorporated into the models and concepts of systems ecology and later ecological economics, and secondly the process of interdisciplinarity within ecological economics. The project will hence have two different but linked subprojects.

The first one is the development of systems ecology at the Askö laboratory in the Stockholm archipelago in the 1970s-1980s. This part will focus on AnnMari Jansson’s study of the island Gotland as an integrated ecological-economic system, which was strongly influenced by the American systems ecologist Howard T. Odum. The objective here is to analyze how knowledge, values and views of nature and society were integrated in the models of Gotland’s ecosystems.

The second subproject focuses on the emergence of ecological economics in the 1980s and the following institutionalization of the research field at the Beijer Institute in the 1990s. This part of the project will concentrate on the collaboration between ecologists and economists and on the driving forces as well as the challenges that are associated with this kind of interdisciplinary research. It will also examine the relation between the Beijer Institute and the Royal Swedish Academy of Science, not least with respect to the institutionalization process.

The intention with the project is to contribute to a deeper understanding of the collaboration between ecologists and economists at the Beijer Institute, and how core concepts and underlying assumptions about nature and society have been – or have not been – integrated within ecological economics.

Programme research: The historical construction of a publically shared sensing of global contexts


By Staffan Bergwik

Department of Literature and History of Ideas

Stockholm University

The aim of this project is to study the historical construction of a publically shared sensing of global contexts. It seeks to understand this sensing as a co-construction of knowledge and emotions. The empirical focus is 20th century geography; the project asks how expeditions created “emotions of exploration”. Through the study of Sven Hedin’s travels to Asia between 1893 and 1935, it asks how such knowledge making contributed to the perception of vast spaces on land and at sea. How did knowledge generate a public yearning to understand the distant unknown? How were global scales turned into a shared matter of concern?

Drawing on research in the history of emotions and the history of the senses, the project studies emotions as collectively shaped phenomena. Methodologically, it addresses arenas where emotions were formulated and circulated in public, e.g. books, popular presentations and academic journals. The way we collectively sense the global is fundamental to how we come to frame our problems and actions at a time of ecological and social crisis. However, the sensing of global contexts must be understood as a product of historical contexts. We need to increase our knowledge about how those contexts were shaped in the modern era.

The project is a collaboration between the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the Department of Literature and History of Ideas, Stockholm university, and the Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment at KTH Royal Institute of Technology.

Sven Hedin på kamel. Bilden från Hvar 8 dag, vol. 10:17, 1909.

Sven Hedin on a camel. Image from Hvar 8 dag, vol. 10:17, 1909.

The Technology Class and Interaction Between Academies

A first report from the SMS-study: Interaction Between Academies – A Study of Science, Innovation and Engineering.

IMG_1521 - Version 2By Katarina Larsen

Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment (KTH)

and Center for History of Science (KVA)


Introducing the project: Interaction between academies

In October 1904, The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences decided that a group of members should be transferred to a new class called Technical Sciences (Tekniska vetenskaper in Swedish). The changing of categories of science within the academy and motives put forward for introducing new categories and merging existing ones is of interest to understand internal drivers for change in organizations. This broader question has been a subject of investigation by scholars in area of Organization studies for many years and subject to analysis in a number of empirical cases. One key question discussed here is concerned with how change was motivated within the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (RSAS) with respect to organizing science in a set of science categories (classes) for members of the academy.

Another question in this study is concerned with interaction between academies as a driver for change and channel for exchange of ideas. In sociology, the concept of “interlocking directorates” is used to illustrate the overlap between boards (i.e. members that are on boards of several companies). This is examined by studying interaction between RSAS and other academies, such as the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences (IVA) and science academies abroad, such as the Royal Society in England. The changes taking place within the academy, are representing changes in an institution of science and technology and can give us better understanding of how new science categories are motivated historically and also contribute to contemporary analysis of emergence of sub-disciplines of science.

Changing categories of research

Not even one year after the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences was formed the question about creating a set of science categories within the academy was raised. The motivation for dividing into groups of science areas has its roots in a specialization argument relating to the practical work of members of the academy, describing that:

each and one (of the members of the academy) would, in accordance with interest and experience, be able to assess the findings and propositions received within that area of science. [Translation from Swedish by the author.]

But what different categories would be used?

The 6th February 1740, the following division into categories was decided by the academy: 1.) Astra (including Astronomy); 2.) Elementa (including Geometry, Mechanics etc); 3.) Naturalia (including Botany, Zoology etc); 4.) Artificialia (including raw materials processing, commerce, medicine etc); 5.) Lingua (“Those concerned with the Swedish language”).

This was the first set of categories for members of the academy – but far from the last one! This suggestion of classes was contested and debated, as described in Sven Lindroth’s account of the History of the RSAS.

ImageIt was not until 1798 that  categories were implemented in the strict sense dividing the 100 members of the academy into seven categories with some overlaps where one member was associated with more than one class.

In 1821, two more categories were added and in October 1904 it was decided to make a division into eleven categories – including the new class of Technical sciences (Tekniska vetenskaper) as the 9th class. Thereby the following categories were established: 1) Pure Mathematics; 2) Applied Mathematics and Astronomy; 3) Physics and meteorology; 4) Chemistry; 5) Mineralogy, geology and geography; 6) Botany; 7) Zoology; 8) Medical sciences; 9) Technical sciences; 10) Economic, statistical and social sciences; as well as the 11th category for “Other sciences” for achievements in scientific research.

One the members of the 9th class from the start was Johan August Brinell, an engineer and member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences since 1902. He also became a member of  IVA – Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences in 1919 and was  active in editorial group of a  journal devoted to mining and metallurgy, first published in 1816, called Jernkontorets Annaler. In an account of the history of Jernkontoret (published 1920), the chairman describes the role of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for this community:

”In fact, during the entire 1700s, The Proceedings of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences played the role of our Mining Industry’s scientific journal.” [Translation from Swedish by the author.]

With changes occurring through institutionalization of technology and engineering communities (IVA created in 1919, and the degree of Technologie Doctor established in 1920), this point in time is of interest for analysis of discourses in the interface between science and engineering, such as the historical account of scientific activities in the example above. With the creation of the class of Technology sciences, it is also an interesting time to examine how members of these two Swedish academies overlap, such as the case of Brinell’s interlocked membership of IVA and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.    

Members of the classes were also responsible for evaluating candidates for several prizes. For example, the members of the newly established Technology class were responsible (together with the Economy class) for evaluating nominations to the Arnberg prize established through the will of a former member of the academy, Johan Wolter Arnberg. In 1905, this prize was awarded to Lilli Zickerman, known as one of the founding mothers of the arts and craft movement in Sweden. However, this was not the work of the newly established a Technology class, since the nomination of her was made already in January 1904 for her travels to north of Sweden to document handicraft and described it in a book (Hemslöjden som nödhjälp, från en Novemberresa i Lappland 1902). The motivation was  that this work had been accompanied by “a knowledgeable and strong activity on her part to generate new and revive old traditional handicraft.”

ImageIn the following year, the Arnberg Prize it was awarded for work with Statistical data tables from different countries. This reflects the wide span of areas of work that could be considered for a prize awarded in categories of technical, economic or statistical sciences  – with the prizewinner of year 1905 thoroughly documenting textiles and handicraft techniques, some of which are on display in the Lilli Zickerman Archive, at the Nordic Museum.

Work ahead on interaction between Academies and the Republic of Letters

In the study of interaction between academies there is ongoing collaboration with scholars at Stanford University representing the project Republic of Letters. In the next steps we will go ahead with analysis of international interaction and exchange between members of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and academies in other countries. The approach is to combine the experiences from visualizing international interaction between academies (and letters of correspondence) with historical source material starting in the 1700s. So it is very exciting to start with the pilot study for that and I will keep you posted on this further work on interaction between academies. In the meanwhile, have a look at some work visualizing correspondence networks of scholars including Galileo and Voltaire in the project Republic of Letters.