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What to expect when your spouse wins the Nobel prize

By Michael Banks

With only one day left until the Nobel Prize for Physics is announced everyone, of course, will have their eyes on the eventual winners.

Yet what about the winner’s family and in particular their spouse: how will winning the prize affect their daily lives?

Anita Laughlin, the wife of the Nobel-prize-winning physicist Robert Laughlin from Stanford University who shared the 1998 Nobel Prize for the discovery of the fractional quantum-Hall effect, has written a behind-the-scenes account of what winning the prize can do to a family.

In Reindeer with King Gustav, Anita Laughlin describes the months after her husband won the prize and the mad rush to sort everything out for the big day in Stockholm.

I haven’t read the book yet, but if it is anything like the video posted on Anita Laughlin’s website to promote it then the account will make for an hilarious read.

“Dad, some guy is calling from Sweden,” is how the video starts, when the youngest son in the Laughlin household answers the phone at 02:30 on 13 October 1998.

Then in true Laurel and Hardy style, with Henry Mancini’s Shades of Sennett playing, the Laughlins rush around their bedroom already dressed in their evening attire to pack (or at least Anita Laughlin seems to be doing most of the packing, with Robert sitting on the bed holding a bottle of bubbly).

If you believe the video then the Laughlins seem to have got some sleep that evening, I just wonder how many physicists will instead be sat patiently by the phone tonight.

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  1. The sad thing is, not all of them will necessarily get the call. My Dad used to tell story of how his PhD supervisor, Walter Heitler, was asked to sit by the phone – only to be passed over at the 11th hour

  2. My Ph.D. supervisor Brian Pippard, who was also Head of Department at the Cavendish, had received a request from Sweden for my photograph a week or so before the official announcement. He pondered the significance of this, and accordingly the day before the announcement warned me of what might be coming. In those days there was no phone call from Stockholm, and first contact was from the Press.
    There was no wife at that time (1973), and one unofficial event in Stockholm was skating at the ice rink near the hotel:
    with one of the daughters of another Laureate, this having been arranged previously at a lunch put on by the Swedish Embassy in London. Fortunately our skating gear proved an effective disguise, allowing us to escape the attention of photographers and the media.


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