Since the first awards in 1901, fewer than 900 individuals have received Nobel Prizes. As the latest laureates join the hallowed host this week, National Geographic wanted to get to know them all better. (Find out more about the secrective process behind the Nobel Prizes.)
Using the Nobel Foundation’s detailed datasets from 1901 to 2016, we break down the winners of the world’s best-known awards.
The United States leads the world in Nobels—thanks to immigrants.
Home to hundreds of individual Nobel laureates, the United States has amassed the largest number of total prizes in any country. But a sizable percentage of U.S.-affiliated science laureates are immigrants who came to the U.S. during their childhoods or early careers.
More than 30 percent of all U.S.-based winners of the Nobel Prize in chemistry were born outside of the U.S—a club that German-born Joachim Frank, a professor at Columbia University, now joins as a co-recipient of the 2017 award. MIT physicist Rainer Weiss, co-winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize in physics, was also born in Germany, joining the 35 percent of U.S. physics laureates who were born abroad.
Evidence suggests that the globetrotting lifestyle itself spurs innovation. A study in Nature published October 4 suggests that scientists who moved around internationally are cited more widely than academics who stayed in the country where they published their first paper.
On average, today’s science Nobel laureates are getting older.
Of this year’s laureates in medicine, physics, and chemistry, all but one are above the age of 70. That’s reflective of a graying trend among laureates. Over the last century, the average ages at the time of recognition have creeped ever upward.
Nobel recognition now comes later in life
In a 2016 interview with the BBC, Nobel Museum senior curator Gustav Källstrand noted that academic fields have changed dramatically in the last century. About a hundred years ago, there were only about a thousand physicists. Now, there are hundreds of thousands—perhaps even a million—worldwide, making the “breakthrough backlog” that much larger with each passing year.
That said, novelists and economists have also grown in ranks, yet they aren’t graying at the same rate as the sciences. In addition, the overall trend for the Nobel Peace Prize favors younger laureates. The Peace Prize claims the youngest-ever Nobel recipient: education activist Malala Yousafzai, who was 17 when she co-won the prize in 2014.
Nobel laureates are overwhelmingly male.
Out of the 881 individuals who won Nobel Prizes between 1901 and 2016, only 48 have been women. In some disciplines, the drought has persisted for decades: The last woman to win a Nobel Prize for physics, Maria Goeppert Mayer, was honored in 1964. The gap reflects longtime institutional biases against women within the sciences, a lag exacerbated by the decades-long backlog of Nobel-worthy discoveries.
Female Nobel laureates
While the number of women awarded Nobel Prizes has increased through the years, a significant gender gap still remains. Out of 881 individuals who have won Nobel Prizes between 1901 and 2016, only 48 have been women.
Nobel Museum curators told the BBC that they have no evidence of the committee refusing to give an award because a nominee was a woman. They also say that the committee slightly bent prize rules to ensure that Marie Curie shared the 1903 Nobel Prize in physics. But that may come as small consolation for the supremely qualified female scientists who were never recognized.
For instance, Lise Meitner, one of the co-discoverers of nuclear fission, was nominated for the physics prize 29 times from 1937 to 1965 and the chemistry prize an additional 19 times from 1924 to 1948, according to Nobel Foundation archival records. She never won. And while astronomer Vera Rubin’s groundbreaking work revealing the existence of dark matter received wide acclaim, she died on December 25, 2016, with no Nobel to call her own.
Increasingly, Nobel laureates represent much larger scientific collaborations.
Nobel Foundation rules say that a Nobel Prize can only be awarded to up to three individuals, reflective of the small-team science that prevailed in the early 20th century. But today, major breakthroughs increasingly come from massive scientific collaborations, and the Nobel Committee has been reticent to award science prizes to broader groups.
The contrast is especially stark in physics, where scientific collaborations can include thousands of researchers—as illustrated by the breakthrough that earned the 2017 Nobel Prize in physics. The prize went to Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne, and Barry Barish for detecting gravitational waves, ripples in space-time predicted by Einstein’s general theory of relativity.
While the trio’s contributions were huge, they themselves argue that the prize should have recognized the broader LIGO Scientific Collaboration, which includes hundreds of scientists. After all, the study that announced the detection of gravitational waves has 1,011 co-authors, by Popular Science’s count. Just 0.3 percent of them were honored by name in Stockholm.
“We live in an era where some huge discoveries are really the result of giant collaborations, with major contributions coming from very large numbers of people,” Thorne says in an interview posted on the Nobel Prize’s website.
“I hope that in the future,” he says, “the Nobel Prize committee finds a way to award the prize to the large collaborations that make this and not just to the people who may have been seminal to the beginning of the project, as we were.” – [National Geographic]