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An extraordinary, ordinary day

It is a mild day in autumn. Business as usual in the Rydbergsalen lecture theatre at Fysicum. Atomic physics is on the agenda for third-year students studying for their Master of Science in Engineering Physics. The lecture started at 10:00 and will end at 12:00, with a short break in the middle.

Sara Hängsel – Published 8 December 2023

Left: Anne L’Huillier carries on teaching her students after receiving the Nobel Prize announcement. Right: Students Rebecka Eldh and Aron Allen outside the Department of Physics. Photo: Aron Allen, Sara Hängsel

Well, almost business as usual. The students have one small thing on their minds. Today is the day this year’s winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics will be announced. At 11:45, to be precise. During today’s lecture, in other words.

When your lecturer’s name is Anne L’Huillier, this has some significance. For years, their dedicated and valued lecturer has been mentioned as a possible winner. But some things just don’t happen in real life. At least that’s what students Aron Allen and Rebecka Eldh are thinking as they prepare for today’s lecture.

“Of course, we chatted and speculated a bit about it before the lecture. Everyone knew that the winners would be announced during the lecture. But we still didn’t believe it would happen,” says Aron.

The lecture starts. Almost exactly one hour before the winners are due to be announced, the class hears a buzzing sound. Someone is calling the lecturer’s phone, which is set to silent.

“She didn’t answer and instead continued with the lecture without taking note of her phone. But it started ringing again immediately. She didn’t react to that either,” says Rebecka and continues:

“It felt like we students noticed the calls more than she did. Could it be...? No, surely not. Or, maybe? During the break, she stayed and answered questions about the lecture, as she usually does. She was in no hurry to excuse herself.”

The lecture is about to start again. But there is no lecturer.

“She was late. She’s never late!” says Aron, and continues:

“When she entered the room a few minutes later, there was an immediate silence. She looked composed. She told us that she needed to finish 15 minutes early ... and then I think we knew. What else could it be?”

"No one dared believe it was true"

The students spontaneously start to applaud, but nothing is confirmed.

“She didn’t say anything about the prize, just that she would do her best to complete the second half of the lecture but that it could be difficult,” says Rebecka, and relates how their lecturer went on to announce that she had something important to say.

“Then she turned to the blackboard and started talking about a quantum number. Imagine returning to the lecture theatre minutes after receiving the Nobel Prize and deciding that the important thing is that the students grasp quantum numbers. For that to be her focus says a lot about a person,” says Rebecka.

As soon as their lecturer leaves the room, the class tunes in to watch the Nobel Prize press conference on the big screen.

“It was like everyone knew, but no one dared believe it was true. It’s not every day that your lecturer wins the Nobel Prize in the middle of giving you a lecture,” says Aron.

But happen it did.

“When we heard her name read out, the room exploded,” he says.

Seconds later, Anne L’Huillier’s colleagues come rushing in, breathless, looking for the laureate. A chaotic frenzy of joy takes over the Department of Physics. Several students publish descriptions of the experience on social media.

“We wanted to share what it was like. It was extraordinary,” says Aron.

Rebecka agrees.

“It was an honour and extremely inspiring to have been part of it,” she says.

The students become sought-after for interviews

The posts are picked up by news agencies and, before long, have spread widely in Sweden and abroad.

“The fact that a researcher who had just been awarded the most prestigious prize of our time in physics kept the focus on her students and their education touched and impressed people around the world,” says Rebecka.

The students in attendance that day become sought-after for interviews in the general coverage of the Nobel Prize that follows.

“Not even the Nobel Prize could make her stop a lecture. She carried on as long as she could. At 11:40, she left the room, and at 11:45, the press conference started,” says Aron, describing the second half of the lecture as surreal.

“It was unreal. I have tried to decipher my notes afterwards, but it’s impossible. My handwriting was too shaky.”

The next day, the class returns to the Rydbergsalen lecture theatre for their next scheduled lecture. Once again, atomic physics is on the agenda. And again, Anne L’Huillier is to be their lecturer. The students bring with them what is probably the largest of all the flower bouquets given to this year’s Swedish Nobel Prize winner in Physics.

And sure enough, there she is, right on time. As always.

"She cut the call short to return to her students"

From the Nobel Prize official Linkedin channel, October 8, 2023:

Annie L'Huillier was unreachable on the morning of the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physics. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences tried reaching L'Huillier to tell her she was one of the 2023 physics laureates.

However, her phone kept going to voicemail. Luckily, they were able to reach L'Huillier's husband. He explained that she was teaching a class on atomic physics, but she would have only a very short break just before the announcement.

During the break, L'Huillier picked up her phone and received the news about the physics prize, but she cut the call short to return to her students. Before going back to class, she turned her phone off again. When she returned to the class, she told the students she would have to finish a few minutes early but did not give a reason. L'Huillier ended the lecture only five minutes before the 11:45 physics announcement and left the room. Suspicious, her students decided to stay and watch the physics livestream in the lecture hall.

When L'Huillier's name was announced, her students broke into cheers.

The Nobel Prize in Physics 2023

Professor Anne L’Huillier, Atomic Physics at LTH, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2023, jointly with Pierre Agostini and Ferenc Krausz, for their experiments, which have given humanity new tools for exploring the world of electrons inside atoms and molecules.

More about the Nobel Prize in Physics and Anne L’Huillier