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U. professor is awarded Nobel Prize in Stockholm

STOCKHOLM, Sweden — Alfred Nobel was reportedly an unpretentious man, but the party thrown to honor the Nobel Prize recipients is straight out of a fairy tale: A royal family, thousands of flowers from Italy, music by a renowned orchestra and a noted soprano, all watched by an international cast of bit players, the men wearing tuxedos and the ladies in evening gowns.

And in the middle of it all stood Mario Capecchi, University of Utah distinguished professor of human genetics and biology, shaking hands Monday with King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden before bowing first to the Nobel Assembly seated behind him and then to the invitation-only audience at the Concert Hall.

Capecchi shares the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine with Oliver Smithies of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Sir Martin J. Evans of Cardiff University in the United Kingdom.

The three of them were lauded for their work using embryonic mice stem cells in a process to target specific genes for research. The 2007 prize in medicine, noted professor Christer Betsholtz in what probably was the only pun of the evening, "is indeed a real knockout."

The speeches were all in Swedish, with English translations provided in a small, softbound booklet on this "Festival of the Nobel Foundation," which included the awards ceremony and, across town afterward at City Hall, a lavish banquet.

"In the early '80s, your ideas about how mice with precisely tailored genetic changes could be obtained were met with skepticism," he said. "In the beginning of the '90s, successful examples of gene-targeted mice were still considered anecdotal. Today, information about the physiological function of all mammalian genes is within reach. Few discoveries have had greater impact on contemporary biomedical sciences than yours," he said, adding "our deepest admiration as I now ask you to step forward to receive the Nobel Prize from the hands of his majesty the king."

The ceremony includes prizes in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and a special award in economics created in memory of Nobel. The Nobel Peace Prize was presented earlier in the day in Oslo, Norway.

The concert hall has multiple balconies, and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and soloist Ida Falk Winland were on a raised tier above and behind the stage where the royal family sat on one side, the honorees on the other, and members of the Nobel Assembly in a half circle behind them. The royal family includes the king, Queen Sylvia, Crown Princess Victoria, Prince Carl Philip and Princess Madeleine.

The walls and the edge of the stage were decorated with flowers that arrived Sunday from San Remo, Italy. Nobel died there in 1896, and each year, in his honor, the city sends thousands of flowers that are then arranged by a florist who has been anxiously waiting to see what the selection is, since it varies each year and will be a central part of the decorations.

Traces of Nobel himself were everywhere. A bronze profile is on all the programs, including the 71-page seating booklet for the Nobel Banquet. The formal presentation of the Nobel Prize medals takes place with Nobelist and king standing in a circle emblazoned with a large "N."

The medal itself is, on one side, the likeness of Nobel, who established the awards in a few paragraphs of the will he wrote a year before his death, to honor those "who have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind." At the lavish meal, there were foil-wrapped chocolate coins that feature the same profile, as did the china cups.

The banquet at City Hall was equally formal. Guests entered through an outdoor courtyard in which a hundred or so children waved torches in welcome. The Blue Hall is huge, and there were 85 honored guests at the head table, where the Nobelists and their spouses, the royal family and other special guests were seated. Capecchi, by the way, was seated beside Crown Princess Victoria, while his wife, Laurie Fraser, sat next to the prince.

In all, there were 66 tables and 1,300 guests, served by a couple of hundred waiters who moved in unison.

The honorees and royals entered to the sound of trumpets and walked along a promenade before descending the marble stairs. Between courses, that staircase served as the stage for a whimsical three-part tribute to Astrid Lindgren and her creation, Pippi Longstocking," by the Royal Swedish Ballet. This year is Lindgren's centennial.

The Nobel Foundation included youths in all aspects of the celebration, and at the banquet students from Swedish universities and colleges displayed the standards of their student unions in a "homage to the Laureates." There, too, a representative from each prize category spoke.

Smithies represented the prize in medicine. On behalf of all of them, he thanked not only his hosts and the Nobel Foundation but also the many students who collaborated over the years on the science and the teachers who ignited a passion for it.

When the meal was over, the toasting complete, the honored guests retired, again with fanfare, to the Golden Hall for dancing.