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Consequences of being a Nobel Prize laureate


Being treated like royalty
Antony Hewish Astronomer
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But you do get the chance to meet people informally. Solzhenitsyn was getting most of the publicity on… on the time I went to Stockholm because, although he won the prize for literature 2 years previously, in ’72 [sic], he wasn’t able to get to Stockholm to receive it. And… but he was there and a wonderful figure, and I straightened his tie before we actually had the proceedings, you know, but that’s the sort of thing you can do for people like that. And he couldn’t speak English very well so we couldn’t converse, but it was just wonderful being able… able to meet people like that. And they do treat you like total royalty. And there was a consequence, well, I’ll come back to that in a minute. But the… following the ceremony, which is… which is this formal onstage proceedings, you then have a banquet, and that is… is like a college feast only more so. You have 2000 people sitting down, all the politicians and the… and the Science Academicians and all the royalty and their relatives and so on and so forth. In those days it was the young King Carl Gustav, he wasn’t married, and there’s a procession from upstairs down into the dining area, where everybody, all these 2000 people, are waiting for you with candlelit tables everywhere. And you come down with the… with the Royal Family and physics takes pride of place.

So my wife came down on the… on the arm of the King, which was rather nice, and I… I came second with the… the Prime Minister’s wife – that was Olof Palme, he was the Prime Minister then – so… so I had his wife, she was a very pleasant person to talk to. And… and you processed down and had this rather… rather lengthy meal at which you have to get up and say a few words. And I forget exactly what I said, but I think I said something about the… the beauty of being an astronomer is that you get a… you get a heavenly view of things. In other words, you… you get taken out of this world and, at that stage, space flight was just beginning and I said something about looking back at the earth and seeing it as a unit, you know, a globe and all that sort of thing. I… I tried to say something entertaining and not… not very technical. But you also have to give a lecture, a Nobel lecture, and what you say at the time isn’t quite the same thing as the written version which gets published later. But I had to give two lectures; I had to give Martin Ryle’s lecture on… on aperture synthesis and my own, the actual wording of the prize was that I got the Nobel Prize for my decisive role in the discovery of pulsars, and I… I said a lot about that. But when I… I saw the… the young King, who was a late teenager then, sitting in the front row of the audience looking a little bit glazed, I thought, but I spoke to him afterwards because I’d heard that he was making a visit to this country in… in the following year, in the summer in 1975. And I said, ‘I’ve heard you’re coming to the UK, if you’d like to know more about radio telescopes do come to Cambridge and visit us at the Observatory’. And I hadn’t… didn’t think for a moment that this would be taken up, but I think there were other Academicians within earshot who… who obviously put their heads together later and said, ‘Well, when you go to England, it would be very good for your image if you showed an interest in science’. And so it happened that in June 1975 the young King Carl Gustav actually came to Cambridge to see the radio telescopes. And as a preliminary to that, I was called up to Edinburgh to meet him on… on his arrival. He flew into Edinburgh, that… that was the way he travelled, and there was a big banquet at Holyrood House, which is a nice place to have a banquet, and my wife and I were invited up there. And you try and dine and make conversation with the… a piped band marching round the table, which isn’t… isn’t the easiest thing. Twelve… it was a dozen pipe majors all in their individual equipment and so on – individual Highland dress – playing bagpipes and marching round the table, and it’s not the easiest thing to talk with that going on.

But, at any rate, a short time later the young King came to Cambridge and we put our heads together and said, well, what on earth can you do to entertain a teenager who’s not really interested in science? He… he was more of a playboy in those… those days and if we talked about swimming or surfing or something that would have been a lot better. But how do you… how do you handle an occasion like that? And I was briefed to meet him at the station because Martin Ryle didn’t like doing things like that, but Martin Ryle met him at… at the Observatory. He came out to the Observatory and we gave him a quick rundown through… through the radio telescopes, in which he seemed moderately interested, but then we thought, well, what do you do with the rest of the day? Well, when you come to Cambridge as a visitor for the first time there’s one thing you can do, which is go punting on the Cam. And… so that’s what we did. We brought him back to Cambridge and we had two punts with research students who were… were good at the… at the business, you know, and they were sitting there with… standing there with bowler hats, and we walked on to the King’s Backs and had these two punts. And I had the great pleasure of being punted down the Cam with the King in the same punt and I have a photograph to prove that somewhere. And that was fun. And then he had a cream tea in Trinity College where one of our graduate students was… well, I’m sorry, he wasn’t a graduate student then, he was… post-doc, and he was a fellow of Trinity and was able to arrange these things, and we gave… we gave the young King a cream tea in the… in the Fellows’ Garden at Trinity. And that was all really a very… very nice occasion, but this is this kind of thing that getting the Nobel Prize involves you… involves you with. And that… that follow-up I… I rather enjoyed.

Antony Hewish (1924-2021) was a pioneer of radio astronomy known for his study of intergalactic weather patterns and his development of giant telescopes. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1974, together with fellow radio-astronomer Sir Martin Ryle, for his decisive role in the groundbreaking discovery of pulsars. He also received the Eddington Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1969.

Listeners: Dave Green

Dave Green is a radio astronomer at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge. As an undergraduate at Cambridge his first university physics lecture course was given by Professor Hewish. Subsequently he completed his PhD at the Cavendish Laboratory when Professor Hewish was head of the radio astronomy group, and after postdoctoral research in Canada he returned to the Cavendish, where he is now a Senior Lecturer. He is a Teaching Fellow at Churchill College. His research interests include supernova remnants and the extended remains of supernova explosions.

Duration: 6 minutes, 36 seconds

Date story recorded: August 2008

Date story went live: 25 June 2009