The downside of being a Nobel laureate? The dance is mostly a stag affair.

The early morning phone call (for North Americans)!  The endless numbers of invitations to give lectures!  Being taken seriously!  There is no end to the inconvenience of having won a Nobel Prize, apparently.  Doesn’t that make you feel better?  I know it makes me feel better about my obscurity and mediocrity!

I like this guy:

“Frankly, I have no complaints whatsoever,” says Martin Veltman, a physics laureate at the Universities of Utrecht and Michigan. Veltman shared the 1999 prize with his former student, Gerard ‘t Hooft, for work that put the mathematics behind the Higgs boson on sound footing. But Veltman does raise an eyebrow at some of the other members of the Nobel club. “Sometimes I wonder about the other laureates,” he says. “In fact I have discovered the truth of a remark by [Enrico] Fermi. Someone asked him: ‘What have the Nobel prize winners in common? His answer: ‘Nothing, not even intelligence.'”

Here’s something this year’s prizewinners have in common“Aside from the European Union, which was awarded the Peace Prize, all of this year’s Nobel laureates are men.”  I guess Fermi completely overlooked the obvious in this case.  But it’s not just because of women’s underrepresentation in the sciences that explains their underrepresentation as prize winners.  Oh, noes!

Stephanie Kovalchik, a statistician at the National Cancer Institute who crunched the numbers for an article in Significance magazine, says that up until the 1970s, women’s Nobel Prize wins in the sciences overall kept pace with their participation in the fields. It’s after the 1970s, Kovalchik says, that a gender gap emerged in Nobel Prize awards. As women’s participation in the sciences began to grow at a faster rate, the Nobel Prizes did not keep up.

“It would suggest that there’s more evidence in more recent decades of a bias in the sciences than in earlier decades,” Kovalchik says.

Bias is also quite evident in the history of the peace prize, the category in which women have been most successful:

Even though women were largely limited from entering the sciences, women still earned prizes, mostly in literature and peace categories. Danny Dorling, of the University of Sheffield in England, says that women have been receiving the awards since the first years of the Nobel Prizes. In the 1940s, women took a higher percentage of the prizes — 8 percent — than in any other decade before 2000. Women took 9 percent of the prizes between 2000 and 2009.

“If you looked in the 1940s, you’d have thought there was some slow but gradual progress,” Dorling says. “Then it really collapsed after the war.”

Between 1948 and 1962, a number of women were nominated, Dorling says, but none were chosen. As the Cold War was settling in, he says, the committees opted for strong men.

“The Cold War was a massive thing in people’s mind,” Dorling says. “And we did think a third world war was likely, and we were on the brink, so it made sense to pick the strong men and do the macho thing.”

National biases are also on full display, as “[p]eople from developing nations, specifically, are few and far between in the ranks of the Nobels. Americans, Canadians and Europeans make up more than 90 percent of the laureates.”

15 thoughts on “The downside of being a Nobel laureate? The dance is mostly a stag affair.

  1. Hold your horses (before they run me over). Nobels, except peace and literature, are awarded to sciences (economics?). The US used to have, and may still hold, a huge advantage over the rest of the world combined in research in sciences. That’s where the 90% comes from. More Brooklyn born scientists got the award than people born in France. That’s not a preference for bagels and lax over crepes.

    Fermi was right, the winners do differ in intelligence. When I asked my son about one economics awardee, his response was “he is dumb and I don’t mean Nobel prize dumb; he is dumb.” My son’s adviser was a winner and he consults with another winner regularly; he knows.

    Women. The Swedes, except economics, have awarded way too many literature awards to Europeans. The award to Obama was a political move. So is the award to Europe. If they are biased against women, it wont be a shock.


  2. I have to wonder … when Obama and the EU win prizes for peace (and *cough*whatthefuck*cough because for realz?), could we start to predict the feminization of peace prizes? Fermi may be right in that winners differ in intelligence, but don’t we also move the bar when it comes to intelligence? Let’s stop insisting that there is some sort of objective, gender-less, race-less, class-less, geography-free bar around this so-called intelligence and just say what it is. When we hold those horses (or “your horses”), it ain’t Patty Griffin’s version of Wild Horses, that’s for sure.


  3. I guess giving the award to whole (sub)continental populations like “Europe” buys you [the awards committee] a gigantic volume of equity swaps in the social networks markets, although you [the individual recipient] might find yourself sitting at the awards dinner in Stockholm next to somebody like Dominique Strauss-Kahn, while we’re talking about “stag affair[s].” I was reading today somewhere that _Time_ Magazine a few years ago named as its “Person of the Year” simply “You,” as in YouTube. Abstractions like that drive me crazy. If there are rules about winning twice, though, that should finish off the whole enterprise, which is so 20th century when you actually think about it. Or maybe they could make one final award to “Whoever We Find on Mars” or something like that. How ’bout that guy who dropped twenty-eight miles into Roswell, NM, yesterday? (Not nominating him in either category, just saying how ’bout that…).


  4. Meh. Most of the work of science, literature, and life is done by people who don’t win prizes. I know a lady who gives free haircuts to people who live on the street and I’d rather know her and value her than any ten science laureates (even though I know that proximity to her makes me no more or less virtuous than I am all on my own).


  5. The US has an advantage over other nations because the gummint gives major $$ to the universities and to the sciences!! Just don’t tell the Tea Party folks.


  6. “More Brooklyn born scientists got the award than people born in France. That’s not a preference for bagels and lax over crepes.” Hm, I think you are confusing Brooklyn with the North Shore of Long Island. Although last time I checked, while Manhasset’s boys and girls lacrosse teams were both nationally ranked, Great Neck’s (North or South) weren’t. Of course, Great Neck did have the cheating scandal (and before anybody gets riled up, I went to school in Manhasset and synagogue in Great Neck – bagels and lax were what I grew up with – and no, I don’t have a Nobel of any kind).


  7. More or less what Truffula said.

    Over the years I’ve met two Nobel laureates, and both were modest, unassuming people: they seemed to be scholars who cared about their research, not arrogant or self-promoting. So maybe the problem is the outsize importance we give to prizes?

    I would love to hire someone who had won the Nobel peace prize, so if we have a job, it’s for FA.


  8. Well I have been a long time advocate of Rebiya Kadeer for the Nobel Peace Prize for her human rights work in East Turkestan. Of course since she is a Muslim I don’t see her getting much American support, but oh well.


  9. Where I studied they had a lot of Nobel laureates and they gave them good parking places. This at a university where parking was very difficult. One of them was emeritus and had his 100th birthday, and was interviewed about his life. They asked what difference the Nobel prize had made and he said the parking place was fantastic since he had gotten so old!


  10. Let’s see… The EU was given the Peace Prize for imposing Disaster Capitalism on southern European economies. Mr. Obama was given the prize for being black. Ronnie Reagan got it after he was forced by public opinion to wake up from his dementia long enough to approve negotiations for a toothless nuclear reduction treaty between the US and a nation about to collapse. Henry Kissinger got it for negotiating an end to the War Against Vietnam, when in actuality he sabotaged the peace talks and prolonged the war. I guess you can say I have very little respect for the decisions of the Nobel Committee.


  11. Mr. Obama was given the prize for being black.

    Srsly? No. He was awarded the prize for succeeding George W. Bush. But you’re right that when pols are given the award, it’s usually a decision that in retrospect looks really foolish. Also, Ronald Reagan never won the prize. Jimmy Carter is the only other U.S. Prez to have won besides Obama recently. However, Theodore Roosevelt (1906) and Woodrow Wilson (1919) were winners too early in the 20th century.

    Full list of Nobel Peace Prize winners here.

    Z: funny story about the parking! I *bet* that was a major perk.


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