By Jeremy Manier
Photo by Frank Augstein/Associated Press for UChicago

Soon after Profs. Eugene Fama and Lars Peter Hansen reached the height of achievement in October by winning the economics Nobel, they faced the fresh and daunting challenge of writing their Nobel lectures.

The Nobel Foundation’s statutes require each winner to give a lecture explaining his or her work, but that only hints at the responsibility that many laureates feel about their speeches. The words help define a laureate’s work for posterity, and sometimes they do much more, providing inspiration for future generations of scholars and public figures.

Aspiring economists still ponder late economics Prof. Milton Friedman’s address on “Inflation and Unemployment,” and his conclusion that “brute experience proved far more potent than the strongest of political or ideological preferences.” Half a century after Richard Feynman’s award, physicists refer to his description of how he produced “an unsolved problem for which I ultimately received a prize.” The most famous Nobel lecture by an American may be novelist William Faulkner’s, with passages that subsequent writers have committed to memory, such as:

“I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things.”

Knowing the historical importance of such speeches adds to the excitement, says UChicago Prof. Roger Myerson, who won the economics Nobel in 2007.

“I loved the challenge,” Myerson says. “The Nobel Prize is not just for individual people, it’s for a body of work. Laureates honor that body of work by talking about its significance, and that’s a tall order. Some Nobel lectures have become famous papers that made major statements.”

Ghosts and geography exert influence

Sometimes flukes of circumstance dictate which addresses reach that special kind of immortality, says Gustav Källstrand, a senior curator at the Nobel Museum in Stockholm. Nobel banquet speeches, which are shorter than the formal lectures, are sometimes more memorable because laureates have been known to write them on the fly and with a personal tone. Geography also plays a role in a speech’s staying power, Källstrand noted.

“People from the U.S. can quote Faulkner, but people in Sweden or France often will quote their own countrymen,” Källstrand says.

Swedish students routinely learn passages from a laureate rarely celebrated in the U.S.—1909 literature Nobelist Selma Ottilia Lovisa Lagerlöf, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Lagerlöf’s address imagined a conversation with her late father in paradise, asking him how she would repay her debts to the authors who had inspired her.

Father, how shall I ever repay them for teaching me to love fairy tales and sagas of heroes, the land we live in and all of our human life, in all its wretchedness and glory? … And I am in debt not only to people; there is the whole of nature as well. The animals that walk the earth, the birds in the skies, the trees and flowers, they have all told me some of their secrets.”

Conversations with ghosts also figured prominently in literature laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer’s 1978 talk, which Källstrand says is widely considered among the best Nobel banquet speeches. Explaining why he wrote in Yiddish, Singer says, “Firstly, I like to write ghost stories, and nothing fits a ghost better than a dying language. The deader the language, the more alive is the ghost. Ghosts love Yiddish, and as far as I know, they all speak it.”

Ideas speak to each other over decades

This year’s economics laureates gave their lectures in Stockholm on Dec. 8. Myerson says they all spoke to important issues in the field of asset pricing, and he was especially intrigued by Hansen’s talk.

“I learned something from Lars’ talk,” Myerson says. “I have a couple of research questions I want to ask him now that I see the outline of what he’s been working on.”

Both the Nobel’s prestige and the stature of the speakers make the speeches inherently significant. Laureates often invoke previous winners and their words, adding to a conversation that builds over many decades. Nelson Mandela quoted fellow Peace Prize laureate Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s caution against “the starless midnight of racism and war,” and President Barack Obama referred to King and Mandela in assessing the meaning of his award.

Other laureates have traced the development of their fields through fellow Nobelists. UChicago Prof. Ronald Coase noted his collaboration with fellow Chicago economics laureate George J. Stigler; Prof. Gary Becker dedicated his entire address to Stigler’s memory; and novelist John Steinbeck cited Faulkner’s speech in his own description of humanity’s “gray and desolate time of confusion.”

But UChicago physicist Subramanyan Chandrasekhar’s banquet speech harked back not to a physicist but a poet, 1913 literature Nobelist Rabindranath Tagore, who wrote,

“Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit; into that haven of freedom, Let me awake.”

At the end of his formal Nobel lecture about stellar evolution and black holes, Chandrasekhar also reflected on the theories’ broader meaning. Noting that stationary and isolated black holes could be described “exactly” by a family of solutions in general relativity theory, Chandrasekhar said black holes may be the most “perfect” and simple macroscopic objects in the universe.

Within the complexity of that field of physics, Chandrasekhar said he had affirmed “the basic truth of the ancient mottoes, ‘The simple is the seal of the true,’ and ‘Beauty is the splendor of truth.’”

Originally published on December 9, 2013.