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How I learned to bow to the king of Sweden


How I learned I’d won the Nobel Prize
Eric Kandel Scientist
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With this in the background, Denise and I are getting ready for Yom Kippur and the year 2000. We had gone to Kol Nidre Service the evening before. We went to sleep early, because she fasts, although I don't fast on Yom Kippur. And at 05:30 in the morning, the telephone rings. It's on her side of the bed. She answers it, she pushes me, wakes me up, and she says 'Eric, this is Stockholm calling, it must be for you, it's not for me.'

So I answered the phone, and it's the executive secretary of the Nobel Foundation, Hans Jörnvall, who informs me that I've just won the Nobel Prize, and I'm sharing it with Arvid Carlsson and Paul Greengard. Unbelievable, I couldn't believe my ears. And then he told me what the protocol was, and what was expected of me. And he spoke for about 5 or 10 minutes or something like that. But I didn't open my mouth during all of that period. Denise had never seen me silent for so long. She thought that something was wrong. Finally, you know, when we said goodbye to each other, Denise was relieved, not only because of what I'd told her, but because I was still intact. So she said something like, you know, it's still early, let's… He said, you cannot talk to anybody for an hour or so, because we have to wait for the press conference. So I said, how can we possibly go to sleep, so we talked and, you know, when the time was up I called up everybody I could possibly get on the phone. Obviously I called up my kids, I woke up Minouche in San Francisco. Within a short period of time, a knock on the door, Tom Jessell, Jane Dodd, and their kids come over with a bottle of wine. The phone is ringing off the hook. A lot of the calls were from Vienna. Isn't it wonderful, another Austrian Nobel Prize. And I said, I think you've got this wrong. This is an American Nobel Prize. An American Jewish Nobel Prize. I thought I would stick it to them. Then I get a call from Columbia, they want to have a press conference, and so I decided even though it's Yom Kippur I should… Obviously want to go to the press conference for me. So I went to the synagogue just to say hello to my friends and tell them this wonderful news, that I would not be there in the afternoon for the… because we went to the press conference. And we went to the press conference, you probably remember that. It was absolutely marvellous, the people in the lab were fantastic. They met me at the door as I came in, it was really a wonderful celebration and it was clear this was a shared experience. I would never have accomplished this without people at least as good, if not better, than me.

Eric Kandel (b. 1929) is an American neuropsychiatrist. He was a recipient of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his research on the physiological basis of memory storage in neurons. He shared the prize with Arvid Carlsson and Paul Greengard. Kandel, who had studied psychoanalysis, wanted to understand how memory works. His mentor, Harry Grundfest, said, 'If you want to understand the brain you're going to have to take a reductionist approach, one cell at a time.' Kandel then studied the neural system of the sea slug Aplysia californica, which has large nerve cells amenable to experimental manipulation and is a member of the simplest group of animals known to be capable of learning. Kandel is a professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University. He is also Senior Investigator in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He was the founding director of the Center for Neurobiology and Behavior, which is now the Department of Neuroscience at Columbia University. Kandel's popularized account chronicling his life and research, 'In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind', was awarded the 2006 Los Angeles Times Book Award for Science and Technology.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Yom Kippur, Nobel Foundation, Nobel Prize

Duration: 3 minutes

Date story recorded: June 2015

Date story went live: 04 May 2016