What It's Like to Win the Nobel Prize

Become a Nobel laureate means you end up "meeting people who are actually famous."
  • Transcript


Question: What was your reaction when you learned you won the Nobel Prize?

William Phillips: Well, my reaction to hearing about the Nobel Prize was one of shock and disbelief.  In fact, I can remember very, very well when this happened.  I was attending a meeting in California; a meeting of the American Physical Society and Optical Society of America meeting jointly out in California, Long Beach, California.  And the day before the prizes were announced, a number of us were sitting around after the scientific sessions were over speculating about who was going to get the Nobel Prize that year.  And believe me, nobody brought up my name.  So, later that night... well it was the middle of the night that I got a call I my hotel room to the effect that I had shared the Nobel Prize with Claude Cohen-Tannoudji and Steve Chu, came as a complete shock.

Question: How did your life change after that?

William Phillips: My life changed dramatically.  It’s very difficult for me to keep up with all of the invitations that I get to speak about my work, the size of my research group has grown and that’s made it possible for me to be involved in more and more new kinds of physics, but it’s made it harder and harder for me to be in intimately familiar with all the things that are going on.  So, there’s a kind of a tension between the joy of doing lots of new things and the desire to understand them better and better. 

Another thing that I never would have imagined would have been one of the results of become a Nobel Laureate is that I ended up meeting people who are actually famous.  So, you know, people say, you’re a Nobel Laureate, you must be famous.  No, nobody remembers you know, outside of the field in which you’re working, nobody remember who won the Nobel Prize even a couple of years ago.  But as a result of being a Nobel Laureate, I get invited to things where I’ve met people who are actually famous.

One of the people that I have met who has been most charming is Dr. Ruth Westheimer.  She lives in New York City, and I see her, probably about once a year, and she’s just a wonderfully warm and genuine person.  Just a joy to know as a friend.

Recorded on June 4, 2010
Interviewed by Jessica Liebman