Perhaps you place bets on the NFL or NBA drafts, scrutinize the most artistic dresses at the Met Gala, or have a strong opinion about which films should warrant an Oscar (seriously, The Banshees of Inisherin didn’t take home even one?!…) Don’t get us wrong, we love pop culture, sports, and art — but around here we get really fired up about Nobel Season.

And ‘tis the season right now.

2023 Nobel Season Hits Close to Home

This year’s season is extra exciting since the Physics prize was awarded to a team of researchers that included Pierre Agostini, Professor Emeritus of The Ohio State University.

The Swedish Academy of Royal Sciences, granted the prize “for experimental methods that generate attosecond pulses of light for the study of electron dynamics in matter” to Agostini alongside Ferenc Krausz, of the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics, Garching and Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Germany, and Anne L’Huillier, of Lund University, Sweden. (L’Huillier, notably, is one of only 5 female Physics Laureates in history.)

If you’re wondering why you’ve never heard the term “attosecond,” that’s because it is one-billionth of the most common colloquial signifier of speed, the nanosecond.  The Academy dazzlingly describes this speed, and its importance: “​​In the world of electrons, changes occur in a few tenths of an attosecond – an attosecond is so short that there are as many in one second as there have been seconds since the birth of the universe.”

The team’s experiments, allowing us to shine a light into the most minute gaps that exist in the perceptual universe, “have given humanity new tools for exploring the world of electrons inside atoms and molecules.”  

The Ohio State University released a statement congratulating professor Agnostini the day after the announcement in which, acting President Peter Mohler categorized the prize as “the pinnacle of scientific achievement.”  

This award brings the University’s total list of Nobel Laureates to six.

Brief History of the Nobel Prize

In 1895, the prize was established in the last will and testament of Alfred Nobel, who was, somewhat ironically, the inventor of Dynamite. In the document, he specified that “the bulk of his fortune should be divided into five parts and to be used for prizes in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace to “those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind.”

The first prizes were awarded in 1901 and there have been 615 prizes awarded since then. The prize has taken on immense cultural significance over time since its explosive origins.

Rich Culture Surrounding the Prize

The Foundation has done a brilliant job of stoking the Prize’s prestige by fostering an incredible culture around its rich history. Here are some of the long-standing traditions that amplify the immense honor:

The Reactions:

The traditions start from the moment of announcement. In much the same way that gender reveal videos have bloomed into the cultural consciousness, The Nobel Foundation captures “First Reactions” — video and/or audio of the moment that a scholar learns they’ve won the most prestigious award on earth. These videos are characteristically witty and candid, delightfully nerdy, and deeply moving.

For Agostini’s part, the Foundation was unable to reach him by phone to tell him about his award. So he found out when his daughter asked if what she read on Google was true. Ever an academic, when asked what his initial reaction was, he said that he “thought of going away, far from any telephone.”

Rites of Passage:

Upon their arrival for Nobel week celebrations, each Laureate is asked to donate an “original artifact,” something personally representative, to be kept in the Nobel museum — ties, books, jars of peanut butter… The result is a museum filled with objects, inane on the surface, but deeply imbued with personal-turned-historical significance.

They each sign the museum’s restaurant’s chairs, a relatively new tradition having only started in 2001 on the Prize’s 100 year anniversary. Some Laureates say that visiting the Nobel Foundation headquarters and its laureates’ room to flip through its guestbook and add their own names to its storied pages, the most moving part of the week.

The Ceremonies:

Each year the Prize ceremonies take place on December 10, the day of Alfred Nobel’s death in Oslo and Stockholm. And the events, much like the award itself, is a once-in-a-lifetime affair. Presided over by the Kings of Norway and Sweden, it’s a white tie event (much more formal than black tie) and includes artistic performances, speech from the Chair of the Nobel Committee, and the requisite lectures that each Laureate must give to receive their awards.

The Menu:

Throughout the Prize’s 120+ year history, the Nobel banquet has served as the glowing gem of Nobel Week. A wonderful acknowledgement of the important role of great food in any true celebration. The Nobel Foundation maintains the menus from every single banquet dating back to 1901. Rumor has it that each laureate takes home a cookbook with recipes.

These traditions, grand and small, display the Foundation’s awareness that the prize is not a moment in time, or even an award really, but the culmination of a lifetime’s work and the honor of that lifetime. It’s an immersive celebration of what it means to dedicate yourself to a quest with no simple answer, no easy payoff, no guarantee of success, and to not only succeed, but to change the course of the world in having succeeded.

The Nobel Prize and its traditions embody the experience of a human in pursuit of knowledge, in service to humanity — and the immense satisfaction when humanity recognizes and celebrates those efforts.