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OPINION & ANALYSIS

Why Sweden’s Nobel prizewinner would be a great dinner guest

It is not only Svante Pääbo’s contribution to evolutionary biology that makes him so interesting, but his own personal story as well, says David Crouch.

Why Sweden’s Nobel prizewinner would be a great dinner guest
Swedish scientist Svante Paabo poses with a replica of a Neanderthal skeleton at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. Photo: Matthias Schrader

Elite scientists are maybe not so high on our list of fantasy dinner guests. Too much homework before the conversation. But the more I find out about Svante Pääbo, the Swedish winner of this year’s Nobel prize for medicine, the more I am convinced he would be great company. 

A modest man with a delightful smile, who likes beer and schnapps with lunch and listens to rock band Talking Heads, Pääbo comes across as warm and approachable. When he won the Nobel, his colleagues at the university threw him in a pond. His book Neanderthal Man is peppered with praise for students and colleagues who helped him along the way. 

He is also skilled at explaining in simple and engaging terms what his research means for all of us. At a time when immigration is such a hot potato, Pääbo reminds us that the history of our species is one of movement and mingling of populations. 

It is not only Pääbo’s contribution to evolutionary biology that makes this clear, but his own personal story as well.

Aged 19, his mother Karin fled her native Estonia in 1944, joining tens of thousands who escaped the Soviet occupation. She worked as a cleaner and a cook in Kalmar, then studied chemistry in Lund, where she met Svante’s father. 

But he was married. Karin brought up her son alone in Stockholm. The father visited on Saturdays when his family thought he was at work.

Svante followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming a researcher. A surreptitious experiment in the lab with a piece of liver from ICA set him on a path towards discovering how to extract and study DNA from long-dead animals. At Uppsala University he was also a gay rights activist, before he fell in love with the “boyish charms” of a female colleague at Berkeley, with whom he went on to share his life and have two children. 

Pääbo says it came as a surprise that his bisexuality was considered unusual, and the fact that it didn’t cause him any problems he contributes to the high self-esteem that his mother had given him. “The realisation that my feelings were not quite what the majority society expected forced me to change my rather complacent attitude and led over time to me becoming more open,” he said in a talk on Swedish radio. “Not only to myself, but also for the idiosyncrasies of others.”

Pääbo developed the ideas and techniques that enabled the DNA of our closest genetic relative, the Neanderthals, to be fully decoded and compared to human DNA. His work shows that, as early humans moved east and north from Africa some 70,000 years ago, they mingled and mated with Neanderthals, their mixed children living in human communities and passing on their genes. 

“From a genomic perspective, we are all Africans – either living in Africa or in quite recent exile,” Pääbo says. But many of us have Neanderthal DNA, around 2.5% of the total – we are more Neanderthal the further you get from Africa, in fact. “The lesson is that we have always mixed. We mixed with these earlier forms of humans, wherever we met them, and we mixed with each other ever since,” Pääbo says.

Swedish scientist Svante Paabo swims in a pool at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. Photo: Matthias Schrader/AP/AFP

Pääbo’s research has relevance for modern medicine because he has enabled scientists to examine how viruses have changed with time. Last year, he and his team made headlines when they reported that people with a Neanderthal variant of their third chromosome were at a higher risk of suffering severe consequences from contracting Covid-19.

As a dinner guest, I think Pääbo would bring the outlook of a person who has experienced both east and west. The Stasi, the east German secret police, investigated after he was given tissue samples from Egyptian mummies at a museum in East Berlin. He moved from California to live and work in Munich, and then the former east-German city of Leipzig. Some of his seminal work is on samples found by Russian researchers in a cave in Denisova, a remote spot in Siberian mountains near the borders with Kazakhstan, China and Mongolia. 

It is wise to avoid politics at dinner parties, but Pääbo might also have something interesting to say about Sweden today. 

Julia Kronlid, newly-elected to the post of vice speaker of parliament, is a senior member of the Sweden Democrats and someone who does not accept the theory of evolution. In 2014, she said in a widely cited interview: “I do not accept the theory of evolution’s claim that humans are descended from apes. One can question the scientific nature of it because it is so far back in time.”

By all accounts, Kronlid appears to be a nice person, whatever you think of her politics or beliefs. Hopefully, she celebrates the Nobel prize for medicine as a great Swedish achievement. And wouldn’t it be nice if she and Pääbo could sit down to dinner together sometime soon?

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

Salming: A sporting superstar who changed what it means to be Swedish

The death of ice hockey legend Börje Salming last week touched the nation, partly because he broke the mould for acceptable Swedish behaviour, says David Crouch.

Salming: A sporting superstar who changed what it means to be Swedish

The mood in the stadium was ugly that September night in 1976, as the USA and Sweden national teams prepared for battle in the world’s first truly international ice hockey tournament. The Toronto crowd booed the American national anthem and was indifferent to the Swedish one. 

Then a mean-looking Swede took to the ice and the entire stadium rose to its feet. The ovation continued for several minutes (you can watch it here). It is considered the greatest moment of all time in Swedish hockey.

The Swede in question was Börje Salming, a Swedish legend, who died last week from a cruel and terminal illness. It is no exaggeration to say that his death touched the nation, and beyond. How many Swedes can claim to have had an obituary in the New York Times

For Swedes, Salming was much more than an international sporting superstar. His rise to stardom in North America in the 1970s and 80s reflected a social transformation as Sweden moved away from the collective ideals of the folkhemmet (people’s home) towards a more individualistic, competitive and outward-looking society. 

Tributes to Salming describe how he blazed a trail for Swedish hockey players into the North American big time and challenged the stereotype of the “chicken Swede”, the soft European. But he also changed perceptions about acceptable behaviour. Without Salming, one could imagine that Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the bad boy of Swedish football, might never have made his big break and left Rosengård. 

Salming was born in 1951 near the mining town of Kiruna in northern Sweden. His mother was Swedish while his father was a member of the indigenous Sami population. Salming’s Sami heritage made him a target of abuse, and he often endured racist anti-Sami slurs. In his memoirs, he attributes his toughness as an ice hockey player to his Sami heritage and the adversity he faced growing up.

Börje Salming wearing a traditional Sami kolt and Tiger Williams, one of his former teammates in the Toronto Maple Leafs. Photo Fredric Alm/TT

When Salming started to play professionally, the prevailing style of ice hockey was sossehockey (social democratic ice hockey), according to sports lecturer Tobias Stark from Linnaeus University. Sossehockey demanded that the team come first and no single player should stand out – an embodiment of the Jante law that celebrates modesty and uniformity over exceptional talent. Moreover, Salming was seen as lazy, troublesome, thuggish, and even un-Swedish.

But it was just these qualities that made him attractive to the Canadian scout who recruited him to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the early 1970s. They met in the locker room after Salming had been sent off for wiping out the referee.

In the NHL, he was an overnight sensation with his brave and combative style. After his first game, a Toronto Star reporter wrote: “Toronto is up 7–4, it is ten seconds left of the game. Then Salming throws himself to the ice and blocks a shot! Geez, this is the kind of player the Leafs need.”

He went on to play more than 1,000 games for the Maple Leafs and break all kinds of records for a defensive player. In 1996, he became the first Swede – indeed the first European – to be inducted into the NHL Hall of Fame. 

His reputation as a tough guy was enhanced in 1986 when an opponent stamped on his face, slicing it open with a wound that required 250 stitches. He was back on the ice two weeks later. 

Yet at first, Salming was scorned by the Swedish hockey establishment. They saw him as being seduced by money and joining the ranks of brutal American players with broken noses and no teeth. It took time for his achievements to be recognised back home, where he eventually became a national icon. 

After he stopped playing professionally in 1993, Salming became a successful entrepreneur with his own brand of clothing and cosmetics, and he wrote cookery books. He became a vocal spokesperson for Sami rights and the conservation of the wilderness, speaking out against mining in areas where reindeer-herding is a way of life. 

In August this year, it was announced that Salming had contracted amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or motor neuron disease. The seriousness of his condition was obvious at his last public appearances in Toronto and Stockholm in the weeks before his death. 

When the Toronto Maple Leafs played a game the day after Salming died, their players wore shirts with BORJE written in yellow on a blue maple leaf with a yellow crown, reflecting the colours of the Swedish flag – and a reminder of Salming’s nickname: The King.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

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