Monday, January 31, 2011

Visiting the Nobel Museum

Freezing yet Cheerful
I'm in Stockholm!

A scientist friend told me once that a Nobel Prize in Sciences was a dated concept.  He said most breakthroughs require an ensemble, a team, and the idea of one guy toiling passionately for years in his lab until one day he says, "Eureka!" is overly dramatic.  He felt it was not the likely way big discoveries will happen in the 21st century.  

That may be, but I found, like most tourists, that visiting the Nobel Museum was #1 on my list of things to do in Stockholm.  To me, the Nobel Prize represents goodness over evil, enlightenment over superstition, knowledge over anti-intellectualism, and excellence over mediocrity. 

I respond to the innovation and thought leadership I see from the Scandinavian countries. Having figured out what works for their countries and developed themselves to the highest degree, as societies they seem free to operate as aristocrats who no longer have to worry about earning a living and can move on to higher, more noble concerns such as how to advance the human race. The Nobel Prize is just the most prominent example.

A beautiful reclining Buddha
displayed as part of an art exhibit
at the Nobel Museum
celebrating the philosophy
of the Dalia Lama

Beautiful and inspiring sentiments
on a garden bench
also part of the art exhibit
Sculpture formed out of
discarded Manhattan phone books

I loved not only seeing the art exhibit but the short movies about each Nobel Prize winner and the other movie about creative environments that breed innovation and excellence without apology.  There wasn't an exhibit on how to raise a Nobel Prize winner. I suppose by the time people win, their parents aren't alive to celebrate with them and to be asked how they did it.  That's probably not so important.  I don't know about you, but I've always observed there is no shortage of worthy scientists, instead there's a shortage of funding for all their great work.

The Nobel Museum is in a stately old building set amidst Old Town Stockholm.  I had to tease the front desk clerk that the big clock in the middle of the exhibit space was dead and not working in a building devoted to celebrating excellence. "I know, she grinned, we've tried for three years to get it to run properly. No luck."  The irony made me smile. Maybe they should offer a prize.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Daydreaming at Stockholm City Hall

 Stockholm City Hall
photo by Yanlin Li
 I can't think of anything in the world more prestigious than a Nobel Prize, can you? One of the great pleasures of being in Stockholm was to see the sites associated with the yearly Nobel Prize event.  One of  the places used to celebrate humanity's most illustrious achievements is Stockholm's City Hall.
The Blue Hall
at Stockholm City Hall
Photo by Yanlin Li
I don't know why I find everything associated with the Nobel Prize deeply romantic, but I do.  Probably because while the Prize goes to one person, you know that someone doesn't achieve something like that without incredible help and support. I found myself reacting to all of Stockholm's Nobel glory with schoolgirl wonder.

One night in Stockholm, I watched new members who were going to be inducted into the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences arrive at City Hall in their white tie and evening gowns. It was such a beautiful moment to see, knowing that this had to be one of the happiest moments of their lives.  Bravo! Brava!

Now that I think about it, it wasn't just seeing Swedish scientists arrive for dinner and dancing that made it all seem so fanciful.  I do know why I find it all so dreamily romantic.

I've always had a serious crush on CalTech scientist Richard Feynman who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1965. Feynman would now be over 90 but he died in 1988. I think back to his wonderful essay "The Value of Science" which is so breathtakingly beautiful, it has the ability to make every humanities major question their choices.

I went through a period where I read every single book Richard Feynman wrote for a general audience.  While I had never taken physics in school, his enthusiasm for the subject always made me realize "I am missing out somehow!" He had such a flair for showmanship when explaining physics.  Most people remember him not for his Nobel Prize, but for explaining very simply, using only a glass of water on the table, how the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up.

 The Swedish Flag
Hanging in the Blue Hall
More Swedish Pride
The Blue Hall is the largest room in Stockholm City Hall and it is most famous for being used every year for the Nobel banquet every December 10th. Every year 1,300 people squeeze themselves into this beautiful space with just 40 inches of space between them.  So what if you have to eat with your elbows close to your sides, this is one of the most exclusive invitations on Earth, no?
Table service for the Nobel Dinner

Two beautiful bas relief sculptures
in the Prince's Hall
within Stockholm City Hall
where receptions are held year round.
These window sculptures
overlook the harbor and a
terrace about as European and romantic
as terraces can get.

The Golden Hall
at Stockholm City Hall
where laureates go to dance.
Isn't it fabulous?
Photo by Yanlin Li
 The Golden Hall at Stockholm City Hall is done with a beautiful golden mosaic that could best be described as Picasso's Byzantine Period. Picasso didn't have a Byzantine period, you say?  I know.  But if he did, this is what it would look like.
 What? You say your City Hall
back home isn't quite this cool?
Yeah, same here.
The architect gave the artist a mere two years to finish the entire job, something the mosaic master felt would take at least 6 or 7 to do properly.  One of the very fun stories the tour guide relates is pointing out a headless Swedish patriot at the top of one mosaic, surrounded by equally headless friends.

"Why Mr. Artist, did your patriot get put up there on the wall minus his head?"

The artist said, "well, that's due to him having lost his head to the enemy in battle.  I didn't portray him with his entire body and head, but left the head off as he lost it in service to his country."

"Yes, but Mr. Artist, why then are there a couple other characters without their heads at exactly the point where the wall meets the ceiling?  Could it be you forgot that there would be 4 to 5 feet of benches at the base of the wall and the entire mosaic was raised 5 feet?" Ouch.

One would never pick these mistakes out on one's own - or even want to, actually.  It's the Swedish strength and ability to laugh at themselves, that makes these very human tours possible.

Oh, and look what I found.  Richard Feynman dancing in white tie during his Nobel weekend.  That is one lucky girl.
Richard Feynman and his wife Gweneth Howarth
Photo from the CalTech Archives

Saturday, January 15, 2011

There is No Need to Save Face in Sweden

Can you see the people near the bottom
of the magnificent Vasa Warship?

There were so many things that impressed me about Sweden but one of the most fun to experience was that a couple of the top tourist attractions in Stockholm all involve human mistakes.  And the Swedes are OK with that!  They not only don't hide them, they tell you the fun stories behind each one.  

The most prominent human mistake on display in Sweden is the Vasa Warship Museum.  A couple of hundred years ago, King Gustavas of Sweden wanted to go raise hell in Poland and had one fine warship built for himself to use invading Polish harbors. When he had it built, he spared no expense in putting all kinds of colorful, scary carvings on it intending, of course, to have Polish sailors peeing in their boots when they saw it coming.  The Swedish king wanted to use it to sink every Polish ship in their harbor and block all activity.
 Restored carvings
showing how the ship was painted in
full color that
conveyed the King's might

Unfortunately, someone's shipbuilding math was off.  Had the entire ship been one meter wider or less top-heavy the ship might have had a fighting chance to complete it's mission.  It looked unstable in the harbor but none of the king's advisor's had the courage to keep it from sailing.

When a strong wind hit it shortly after launch, the ship leaned enough to one side that water starting pouring into the open windows used for the cannons. It sailed all of 20 minutes before sinking, blocking the Swedish harbor, not the Polish one.

Three hundred years later, a Swedish archeologist decided that Sweden needed to bring the ship up from the depths of the mud and now the whole thing is on display.  I'm not a guy, but when I entered the museum and saw this giant, gorgeous instrument of war, even I got a testosterone rush.  It was 17th century shock and awe.

Scary and beautiful carvings
on the back of the ship
sans their color

Hearing about how bad math doomed the ship reminded me of Henri Petroski's wonderfully readable book about the role of failure in design called "To Engineer is Human." Doctors bury their mistakes, but poor shipbuilders, builders and engineers have to experience all of their failures publicly.  VASA museum tour guides are very used to the giggles that come out of tourist mouths like mine as we contemplated how embarrassing it all must have been.

I ask you though, hasn't the Swedish bravery in showcasing their mistake given that warship a higher purpose?  Kids, look what happens when you don't do your math homework!

You might also enjoy these other posts on Sweden:

A Week In Sweden

Daydreaming at Stockholm City Hall

Visiting the Nobel Museum

Visiting Sweden: If This is Socialism, Sign Me Up!

What Idea(s) Captured Your Imagination in 2010?

The Swedish Tourist Attraction that Didn't Attract Me

If It Were My Home: Comparing Sweden to the United States

Friday, January 7, 2011

A Week in Sweden

 Starting a fun day of sightseeing
at a cold beautiful overlook of Stockholm

 I recently had the opportunity to visit Sweden.  I went in November, an unusual time to go close to the Artic Circle but it was when I had time available.

 A beautiful woman who helped with
directions in the central city.
Can you tell she's Swedish?
She is.

It was my very first time in Northern Europe.  I felt like I had returned to my childhood! Having grown up in the center of Iowa, I had been surrounded by Norwegians and Swedes.  They were proud "Scandinavians" eating lutefisk at Christmas and displaying their bright red wooden Swedish horses and candelabras.  My mother had learned how to cook Swedish tea rings from our Scandinavian-American neighbors and my whole family did our best to encourage that borrowed ethnic specialty in our house. Warm, fragrant, gooey, cinnamony, frosted tea rings are delicious!

 This young woman was
on my tram in Stockholm.
Can you tell she's Swedish?
She is.

I delighted in all of the ethnic Swedish names.  Say these out loud, they're so beautiful:

Astrid and Ingrid and Märta and Linnea
Einer and Anders and Liam and Mattias and Nils

and these last names:

Eriksson and Olsson and Gustafsson and Lindberg and Eklund and Lindgren and Lundin and Nordstrom

 A Swedish Royal Palace Guard
Can you tell he's Swedish? He is.

Being exposed to all of the glorious first and last names common throughout Sweden made me realize some friends back home, especially those living in Northern Illinois, were of Swedish origin.  I had never considered their ethnic origin before that moment.  It was fun to discover.

Contemporary Swedes have an open heart. It's not always easy to do so, but they do.  They have opened their country to immigrants from other countries and are now learning terrific food from them like I learned about Swedish tea rings and lefsa back home in Iowa.

This polite young man came to Sweden
from Somalia when he was six.
Can you tell he's Swedish?  He is.

Can you tell this man is Swedish?
OK, he's half Swedish.
The other half is Zambian.
I admired the Swede's open hearts because when everyone is sooooo ethnically similar, it has to be disconcerting to have people with different religions and traditions and values and ideas integrate into your society and start to change things by just being their normal selves going about their normal daily lives.

In one grocery store, I asked an immigrant helping me find cranberries where he was from.  "Kurdistan!" he said, with all of the fierceness he could muster.  I had to think about it for a moment and then realized the reason I didn't know where it was is because it is an area within Iraq.

Knowing that there are all kinds of people like him scattered across the globe in an ethnic diaspora, is a reminder to give all of these people a break. I was glad when he dissolved into a surprised fit of giggles hearing me give him an Turkish "tessekur ederim" (thank you).

Complimenting a Swedish lady about her country's openness to immigrants, she said, "but who can say who is Swedish?  My grandparents are from Poland!".

We Americans should be especially grateful for the Swedish open hearts because they are the world's people most gracious enough to take in Iraqis fleeing strife cause by the war and occupation the Bush Administration started in Iraq.  In 2006, Swedes took in more Iraqis than any other country in the European Union.  Christian Iraqis, fearing persecution in their homeland, make up a large part of that influx after Iraq occupation in 2003.

Sweden, this little tiny nation of 9 million, has taken in 100,000 Iraqis.  America, with a population of 310,000,000 has only taken in 350,000-400,000 Iraqis from a war we started.  If you meet a Swede, America, you might want to say "thanks."

Or, we could do even better, we could crack open our hearts a little.
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