Dissecting the Nobel

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“A person who has not made his great contribution to science before the age of 30 will never do so.” These words by Albert Einstein might have been reflective of the state of science in his era, but they’re no longer true, for Nobel Laureates in each of the 6 fields of human endeavour, except for the Peace Prize, are progressively getting older by every passing decade (see chart- "Winners getting older"). In Physics, the average age of Laureates since 1901, when the prize was first awarded, is 55 years, whereas the average age of Physics Laureates in the 21st century is 11 years older. It is noteworthy that the average touched a low of 41 years between 1931-1940. This decade coincides with a revolution in Quantum Mechanics, when youthful visionaries such as Dirac, Schrodinger and Heisenberg made breakthrough discoveries in this field, and took Nobel Prizes. However, with vast expansion in the body of scientific work, it is but natural that researchers take longer to prove themselves worthy of the greatest recognition in all of humankind. In Literature, the average age of Laureates in the 21st century stands a full 5 years older than the overall average age. Amongst all the 6 fields, Economics, for which Nobel Prize was first awarded in 1969, turns out to have the most grey-haired Laureates, with the average age of winners being 67 years. For the Peace Laureates, however, the 21st century has brought good news. The average age of Peace Laureates in 21st century is lower by nearly 3 years. The youngest Peace Prize winner until this 2014, Yemeni lady Tawakkol Karman, was awarded the Prize in 2011. Malala Yousafzai is excluded since this analysis is only till 2013.

The more recent Nobel Laureates have another bad news to contend with, that of the coveted Nobel pie becoming smaller. 166 Nobel Laureates have so far shared the 105 Physics Prize given out since 1901, which comes to 1.8 recipients for every prize (see chart- "More sharing the same pie"). The fragmentation of prize also means the recent Laureates' wallets aren't as thick as their older compatriots.The Laureates of 21st century stand to make around 4,000,000 Swedish Krona (by 2013 value), while the Laureates a 100 years back made over 50% more than that amount. The lowest prize money was shared by Laureates between 1950 and 1990, when the absolute prize money for each prize tanked (see chart- "Laureates not as rich anymore").  As with age, the increasing trend towards sharing the prizes should be unsurprising in scientific fields, as the sheer weight of work makes collaboration not only desirable, but also imperative, to achieve glory. However, despite the avalanche of collaboration enabled by the internet, the Literature Laureates continue to stand true to the stereotype of being solitary, lonely workhorses, with only 110 recipients for the 106 prizes announced since 1901.

Statistics also show that you stand very few chances indeed of winning a Nobel if you were born in continents other than North America and Europe, as over 80% of all recipients come from these two continents. While the proportion of Nobel Laureates born in the other 5 continents has risen steadily, it stands at a dismal 23% this century, with a total of 35 Nobel Prizes (see chart- "Your birthplace matters"). Digging deeper into the profiles of these winners is still more discouraging, as most of these Laureates accomplished their award winning work in either North America or Europe. This trend is even stronger for the 4 fields of science in which the prize is awarded. For example, Claude Cohen-Tannoudji, the 1997 Physics Laureate, was born in the erstwhile French colony of Algeria and moved to Paris at a young age, where he did all the research work for which he won the prize.

Comments

Thanks for the article, Prabhat Singh, it is really interesting to look at all the statistics, and see how the Nobel Prize has changed decade from decade. Particularly, interesting however, is the point you make about how "your birthplace matters". As you rightly point out a disproportionate amount of winners come either from North America (I suppose principally the U.S and Canada as Mexico only has two Nobel winners) and from Europe.

I think this fact holds true in general for many international institutions: the IMF is still exclusively for European Managing Directors (the only candidate from a non-european country ever has been Agustin Carstens in 2010), the World Bank is for American candidates (although interestingly the current President was born in Korea), five countries (who coincidentally won the Second World War) have seats in the UN Security Council, and so on, and so forth. I think that in general, it can be said that where you are born will greatly affect your chances to earn many prizes, offices, etc. Particularly interesting is that all the examples that I cite are international organizations or prizes which supposedly should be diverse.

In the case of the Nobel prize, a lot can be explained by superior education in Europe and the U.S (most of the best universities on the QS rankings are coincidentially also in these countries), but in other case they are "rules of the game" which are frankly out of date and need to change.

Do you think that eventually, this tendency will eventually change?

Thanks for the comment, Alejandro.

It is indeed sad that your place of birth pretty much determines half your life. However, it is not without good reason. As you very rightly say, US and Europe have the best education on the planet, which clearly translates into their share of the Nobel. I come from one of the top 5 engineering institutions of India. Sadly, the standards at my college were so shockingly mediocre that even if one of the members of the Nobel Committee had a dream about so much as nominating a faculty member from my college for the Nobel, it would be a lifelong nightmare for him.

As regards other institutions, India, China and indeed other countries need a greater say at global institutions such as IMF, WB and UNSC. The drawing rights at IMF must be changed and UNSC must undergo expansion. Though I don't have much expectations from it, the newly constituted BRICS bank is a positive step towards a new world order. Rich countries have continued to strong arm the poorer ones into towing their line, be it at climate conferences or at WTO. That must stop.

I'd also like you to go through some other essays of mine. The most recent ones are all data-driven.