The Nobel Prize

Trip Start May 28, 2008
Trip End Aug 26, 2008

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Flag of Sweden  , Stockholm,
Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Alfred Nobel called Stockholm his home, and his legacy of the Nobel Prize lives on in the culture of this city of islands. Nobel made his money from inventions, mainly TNT (Dynamite), and had accumulated a large fortune before his death. His wealth was left to establish the Nobel Prize for those who had contributed the most to humanity in Literature, Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, and Peace. Later, the sixth prize for Economics was funded by Swedish banking interests, so now there are six. In accordance with Alfred Nobel's wishes, the Nobel Prize for Peace is awarded in Oslo, Norway.

Nobel's desire that citizenship should not be included in the criteria for selection of the prize was controversial, as many believed his fortune should only be spent on Scandinavians. I believe time has shown the wisdom of Nobel's decision in this regard. Some believe that since Nobel's fortune was derived in part from supplying the world's largest armies, that he had blood on his hands and that the prize was some form of atonement.

The City Hall building in Stockholm hosts the annual Nobel banquet, and it was nice to take a tour of the great Blue Hall (where it takes place today) and the Golden Hall (where it once was held). The gold mosaics of the golden hall are flashy, but upon close inspection the quality if rather poor and there are some mistakes (including a headless figure, where they ran out of room). The reason for this is that there were few in Sweden a century ago who knew mosaic techniques, so they used a young man who had only recently completed his apprenticeship in Italy. The whole room was also completed in a hurry at just 7 months. All people are supposed to be considered equals in Swedish society, so the over-the-top gold design was subsequently criticized as too ornate and imperial for a city building.

Old town Stockholm centers around Gamla Stan, and the narrow streets of this area have a great deal of charm. It is also the location for the Nobel museum, which gives a good introduction to the Nobel Prize and the prize winners. We could have spent hours just sitting and listening to the short film series which runs all day, giving introductions to the Nobel-winning-minds in their own words. Examples we saw included fascinating contributors to our history such as Madame Curie, Martin Luther King, and Richard Feynman (a personal favorite).

Gailen and Stirling particularly enjoyed our brief visit to Technical Museum, a science and industry museum with several rooms of outstanding hands-on science center displays. I always enjoy a nice science museum, and this one had some fun stuff to do for the kids. Stirling and Gailen strapped on brainwave monitors to play a game of Mindball. Each player's brainwaves are monitored, and the specific brainwaves that are more relaxed and gently focused will cause the ball on the table to move towards the opponent's side. It was hysterical watching Stirling sit calmly and push the ball with her mind over to Gailen's side over and over again, while Gailen panicked, flailed about, pointed and yelled at the ball in front of his nose inching closer. They both had great fun, but we hoped a not-so-subtle lesson might also sink in.

Laura and I were very impressed with a visit to the Vasa Museum, which was built to enclose the oldest ship in the world several years after it was raised. Originally housed in a temporary building, the size of the vessel prevented anyone from examining or viewing more than small sections from a few meters away and a new building was built to house this important maritime treasure.

The Vasa was meant to be an amazing warship that would help Sweden with expansionist ideas. The King pushed for it to launch early and join the fleet, but the shipbuilder hadn't corrected a problem with the top-heavy weight, narrow beam, and lack of ballast. Predictably, the Vasa never made it far from Stockholm and sank shortly after leaving port on her maiden voyage.

There was a big inquest, but no one was sentenced. The shipbuilder pointed out that he has widened the beam as much as he could after taking over from the first shipbuilder, now deceased. The cold and then-polluted waters where the Vasa sank permitted it to remain mostly intact for 333 years and avoid many type of organism that would otherwise have eaten the wood before it was raised in a massive effort and the wood preserved. Today they have to keep constant watch on it to ensure it stays intact and does not deteriorate, as oxygen contact has produced some strange results so far due to the compounds absorbed by the ship while underwater. It is simply mindboggling to look at this massive ship out of the water and imagine it at sea.

Stockholm is really lovely in summer, and we considered ourselves lucky to find a great vegetarian café on one of the few high spots in the city. The evening and night views over Stockholm are magnificent, and something we can highly recommend.

- Demian
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