Leaping Laureates

Martin Chalfie never envisioned celebrating his 2008 Nobel Prize in chemistry by toting a giant paper mâché frog on his shoulders across the Stockholm University campus on a cold, dark December eve.

But three days after he crossed the stage of the Stockholm Concert Hall to receive his gold medal for the development of green fluorescent protein, he did—part of his induction into the Order of the Ever Smiling and Jumping Little Green Frog. It started innocently enough, with he and his fellow Laureates in chemistry, physics, and economics joining several hundred students and university members at four long wooden tables in one of Stockholm University’s halls, belting out the traditional Swedish schnapps and wine songs. (Medicine Laureates have a different celebration across town at Karolinska University.) In the hall for the festivities was the nearly 2-meter-tall paper mâché frog, the mascot of the evening. Then, each Laureate...

“That was the end—or so we thought,” recalls Chalfie. “Then the students came up to us and said ‘the tradition is that the Laureates have to bring the frog back to its resting place.’” So the four chemistry Laureates—who happened to be standing together when the students approached them—all shouldered the frog, carrying it nearly half a kilometer across campus up to the second floor of a small cabin, where the frog was put to bed.

This mysterious Order got its start in the winter of 1917, when a group of students in the Stockholm University science fraternity decided, in the nature of warm-hearted ribbing, to bestow a small metal frog upon a fellow classmate during their annual Christmas party (in Swedish, the same word can mean both “frog” and “blunder”). The next year, the recipient passed along the frog to another student. The tradition grew legs, emerging into a full-on society with some 500 members who hand out roughly 7-centimeter-long metal frogs to science students who have contributed to the science fraternity. The name of the group comes from a traditional Swedish song about a playful, little green frog.

Days after accepting Nobels, the 2008 chemistry Laureates carried a massive frog statue through a Swedish winter night.

In 1936, the Order’s board began awarding the frog to Nobel Laureates from the University of Stockholm or Sweden. And since 1976, all Nobel Laureates are invited to be inducted at the Santa Lucia Ball every year on December 13, in honor of St. Lucy, a prominent Swedish saint. The date also conveniently falls three days after the Nobel ceremony, so the Laureates might still be in town.

But the details of the Order, and of the December ball, are rather hazy—and the ball is off limits to the press. There are four courses of food, each accompanied by wine, beer, or schnapps, and traditional Swedish songs. There is a snuff (inhaled tobacco) course.

Some years the attendees are required to wear white tie and tails. Some years not. Sometimes there is no paper mâché frog—Roderick MacKinnon from Rockefeller University, who won a Nobel Prize in 2003 for investigating the structure and function of ion channels, recalls the frog element came from the emcee wearing a giant frog suit. Some years, the Order presents poems to each of the new inductees. Chalfie and his fellow Laureates had to answer some riddles. “The questions are quite hard, like, ‘why do people put bells on cows?’” The answer? “Because their horns don’t work.”

Robert Grubbs, who won the Nobel in 2005 for his work on an organic catalyst for chemical reactions, was told ahead of time by a previous Nobel Laureate that he shouldn’t miss the frog ball. “According to him this is the most fun part of [winning a Nobel],” says Grubbs. “The rest is very formal, very organized. This is just students and basically consists of having food, drink, and singing all Swedish songs.”

At the end of the night all the members of the party get on their tables and chairs to dance and hop like frogs. “I do recall being on stage and being asked to hop like a frog, but it’s all kind of a blur,” says MacKinnon.

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