What Do You Say About Science When Speaking to the King and Queen of Sweden?

01/05/2012 12:02 am ET | Updated Mar 05, 2012

What do you say about Science (with a capital "S") when speaking to the King and Queen of Sweden -- and a million viewers? Here is the short speech I gave at the recent Nobel Prize banquet in Stockholm. I shared the Physics prize "for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the Universe through observations of distant supernovae."


Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses,
Honored Guests and Colleagues,
Friends and Families,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great honor and a pleasure for Brian Schmidt, Adam Riess, and me -- together with our teams -- to be here tonight. We represent a community of scientists, with whom we tackled one of the most enticing ancient questions -- What is the Fate and Extent of the Universe?

According to Einstein, the answer should be determined by how much stuff -- mass -- is in the universe, gravitationally self-attracting and slowing the universe's expansion. We all set out to measure this slowing, using the brightness and colors of distant supernovae, exploding stars.

To many of us this is a scientist's dream: a philosophical problem that can be answered with a simple (if difficult) measurement. Even better was the scientist's fairy-tale ending: a surprise. We live in a universe that apparently isn't slowing down at all -- it's speeding up, and we have no idea why.

Perhaps the only thing better for a scientist than finding the crucial piece of a puzzle that completes a picture is finding a piece that doesn't fit at all, and tells us that there is a whole new part of the puzzle that we haven't even imagined yet and the scene in the puzzle is bigger, richer than we ever thought.

A poem by our laureate colleague Tomas Transtromer begins with the following sentence (if you'll excuse my attempt at Swedish):

En man känner på världen
med yrket som en handske.

... or, in translation:

With his work, as with a glove,
a man feels the universe.

Of course for our particular work this is perhaps too literally true. But it is also true the other way around:

With our work exploring the universe,
we feel what it is to be human.

In other words: We mortal, limited humans joining together in teams from around the world, and in time across civilizations, become capable -- in our case, capable of just glimpsing one additional bit of how the universe works. It is exhilarating.

But it is in the doing, in the process of working together to explore the universe that we learn to truly appreciate each other, and to enjoy each other's company and... spark, as all humans should be appreciated. And that, too, is exhilarating.

We together thank our hosts for an extraordinary and beautiful evening celebrating these prizes that can remind us of this wonderful aspect of our humanity -- and challenge us to find and explore what's best in each other as we find and explore more of the universe's mysteries.

Thank you.