Tom Cech
Tom Cech

Does becoming a Nobel laureate mean an instant life of glamour, with champagne-soaked parties, product endorsements and paparazzi?

Not quite, according to Tom Cech, a University of Colorado distinguished professor who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry 23 years ago.

"I had a wonderful obscurity in my personal life in town, and it went from that to people asking for my autograph in King Soopers," Cech said.

He doesn't get stopped as much these days but said colleague and CU physicist David J. Wineland, who won the Nobel Prize in physics Tuesday, can expect to be in demand in the more rarified air of politics and culture than in the gaudy churn of the celebrity press.

Cech said his 1989 prize, awarded to him and Canadian-American chemist Sidney Altman for their discovery of the catalytic properties of RNA, changed his professional life "almost not at all" -- he was already well respected and well funded in his field -- but did allow him to speak at new venues. Recently, he was invited to address a group of U.S. senators on Capitol Hill in Washington about the benefits of federally funded scientific research.

"It does give you an opportunity to represent the scientific community at a high level," Cech said. "There are a lot more requests to chime in on national and international political and ethical issues."


CU professor and JILA chairman Eric Cornell, winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in physics for his work in creating a new form of matter called Bose-Einstein condensate, said laureates end up being "traveling goodwill ambassadors" in their fields. And doors to academic opportunities and further funding open a little wider.

"If I want to go visit a university, I immediately get invited," said Cornell, who shared his prize with former CU professor Carl Wieman and German physicist Wolfgang Ketterle. "If I write a grant proposal, it's easier to get that grant proposal funded."

Eric Cornell
Eric Cornell

Winning the Nobel isn't completely devoid of glitz and glamour, Cornell said. He urged Wineland to enjoy his time in the Swedish capital when he picks up his prize in December. Recipients get a private car and driver and attend dances, receptions and other fancy functions during the weeklong celebration.

"They do everything to make you feel like a movie star," he said.

And then there's the money. Cornell split a million-dollar prize with his two co-winners, and Cech took home $200,000 as his half a dozen years earlier. Wineland is set to net half of the $1.2 million -- split with physicist Serge Haroche of France -- that comes with the prize.

Both Cech and Cornell said the money is nice but not enough to enable a life of luxury.

"It's a lot of money, but it's not enough to retire on," Cech said.

Contact Camera Staff Writer John Aguilar at 303-473-1389 or