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World’s best scientists: what the Nobel Prize owes to St. Petersburg


The Nobel Committee has named the names of the world’s most prestigious prize laureates. There are no residents of St. Petersburg among them, but the prize itself is inseparably connected with the Northern Capital. The “Pulse of the city” reporter Pavel Nikiforov has gathered facts about Alfred Nobel, his prize and its winners from St. Petersburg

Yuriy Zinchuk, host: “We begin with the event, which was closely followed by the whole world last week. Im talking about the ceremony of Nobel Prize winners announcement. Starting from Monday, the Nobel Committee had been announcing the names of the laureates. The award ceremony will take place in a month, but the winners are already known. Those are the people defining guidelines for the humanity’s development in the coming future. There are no residents of St. Petersburg among the current laureates. Moreover, not a single Russian scientist or public activist made it onto the list. Some experts even alleged that this may also have been Europe’s reaction to Russia standing up for its national interests. Which, naturally, many don’t like. But organizers firmly deny this – saying that interests of science must stand above politics.

We will not get involved in such arguments. We will just say – without us, without Russia, without St. Petersburg the Nobel Prize would not have existed. Not to mention that 12 laureates of the world’s most prestigious prize – those scientists and authors – made their careers in St. Petersburg. The Nobel St. Petersburg – this is the topic of our special correspondent Pavel Nikiforov’s report

“Creation of blue optical diodes”. “For artificial memory”. And “for studies of neurophysiological mechanism of orientation in space”. This is how the winners of 2014 Nobel Prize sound like. Among the laureates are Americans, a French and Japanese.

Stockholm again had no place for Russia. Although Nobel – both as a scientist and as creator of the prize – would not have existed without Russia and St. Petersburg.

Pavel Nikiforov, reporter: “There are two profit houses of the Nobel family in St. Petersburg. One is at the Kamennoostrovskiy island, the other one is this – at the Lesnoy Prospekt. There was even a town of its own – 16 buildings – built between the Pirogovskaya embankment and Lesnoy for workers of Nobel’s factory. In February 1917 it was at Nobel’s factory that coup started in Russia – from these courtyards crowds of workers marched towards the present Vosstaniya Square. So Nobel and his prize are not simply intertwined with the history of Russia and St. Petersburg. They are an integral part of our city

Believe it or not, 12 Nobel Prize laureates are directly connected with St. Petersburg. Pavlov, Mechnikov, Semenov, Landau, Kapitsa, Alferov, Brodsky – all of them are residents of St. Petersburg, in the 1st place. And if a rating of Nobel-winning cities existed, then we would have been its clear favorites.

The same does not apply to countries statistics. The leader – USA – has 360 awards. The whole of Russia and the Soviet Union only won 23. Such statistical gap makes one wonder whether the Nobel Committee is just.

Pavel Nikiforov, reporter: “It seems that little has changed here in a century. Small entrance, only two apartments. Nobel factory’s workers lived here like this before the revolution, ordinary residents of St. Petersburg live here the same way nowadays. Few also know that there was a special prize of Alfred Nobel’s brother – Ludwig – for Russia, because out of his 66 years he had lived in St. Petersburg for 56. Up until 1917, this prize was given every 5 years for research and development in science and technology. This prize is well-forgotten now, although the capital which formed the future Nobel Prize was made of Russian oil money and the work of Russian workers, engineers and scientists”

But even this prize – designed particularly for Russia – evaded, for instance, Mendeleev. The genius chemist did not live to receive neither the special prize nor the ordinary Nobel Prize. That’s despite being nominated three times in a row – from 1905 to 1907. That’s when a considerable army of those opposing the Swedish prize appeared in Russia and later in the USSR. Their main point was that the prize was created on blood money, earned from the creation of dynamite. Nowadays, the sum of the won prize – 1,5 million dollars – is hefty money for a scientist from any country.

Anatoliy Samarin, scholar at MGIMO: “This behind-the-scenes economic part is exceptionally important within the Nobel Committee. Hence the colossal unjustness, hence the bizarre decisions – like awarding Obama with a Peace Prize while he was at power for only a few months, or the strange prize to the EU”

However, the Peace Prize is not always and not necessarily given for a war. St. Petersburg resident Gennadiy Menzhulin got it as a part of the team of experts working on climate change. Along with Zhores Alferov, they are the only Nobel Prize laureates living and working in St. Petersburg. 

Gennadiy Menzhulin, Nobel Peace Prize laureate: “This is a typical certificate for all Nobel laureates. It says here “for contribution to development of science, the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded to Gennadiy Menzhulin”

Pavel Nikiforov, reporter: “For many, this is a pinnacle of dreams and ambitions. Has your life in St. Petersburg changed after you received it?

Gennadiy Menzhulin, Nobel Peace Prize laureate: “Yes, it has. In the University I work at – at the SPBGU – people are now saying that we have the only live Nobel laureate here”

On the one hand, the Nobel Prize is a sacred symbol of faith in the modern world. As iconic as market economy. In the hundred years of its existence, the world has been taught that there could be nothing but admiration upon its awarding. In other words, its like scientific showbiz. On the other hand, there have always been people in St. Petersburg and Leningrad which brushed all conspiracies aside and were confident the prize would not evade them.

Yakov Gordin, writer: “Brodsky first thought of it half-jokingly. He often joked on that subject. Once he said, in the early 1980s – Oh, it smells like Nobel Prize! So he had been thinking of it for quite some time”

Brodsky’s Nobel speech: “Standing at this rostrum is a major inconvenience and a challenge. This feeling is reinforced not by the thought of who had stood here before me, but of those who had never made it here”

In this Nobel speech, Brodsky recalled only those from St. Petersburg, setting Mandelshtam and Akhmatova as examples. He has remained as the only Leningrad-native to have won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Although there have been many people from St. Petersburg in scientific nominations – chemistry, physiology and physics. Primarily because of our city’s strong scientific traditions.

Zhores Alferov, laureate of Nobel Prize in Physics: “If I was not placed into the physics-mathematical institute in 1953, I would have never won the Nobel Prize”

Zhores Ivanovich won his Nobel Prize in 2000 for developing of semiconductor heterostructures. 14 years later, 3 scientists from Japan – Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Suji Nakamure – won the prize for creation of blue light diode, which became basis for LED-lights. Those will soon become the main source of lights in the world, so the heating lamp technology will be abolished. But the most interesting thing is that this work of the Japanese scientists is based on Alferov’s heterostructures. 

Zhores Alferov, laureate of Nobel Prize in Physics: “Yes, I can say – our work was used. But im glad that heterostructures work here. And the prize for it was absolutely just”

In other words, every work of another Nobel Prize winner has the basis and heritage of the previous winners’ works. Which means we’re present – even though invisibly – even at the 2014 ceremony. All of St. Petersburg’s 12 Nobel Prize winners.