Nobel Prizes

“In its proud and storied history, Hungary has produced a dozen winners of the Nobel Prize: four for chemistry; three for physics; three for medicine; one for economics; and one for literature.  Not bad for a little country of not quite 10 million people.

“Then there is Europe: Half a billion people with a comparatively minuscule Nobel representation.”  Bret Stephens

Nobels and National Greatness

 Bret Stephens, The Wall Street Journal, October 21, 2013

In its proud and storied history, Hungary has produced a dozen winners of the Nobel Prize: four for chemistry; three for physics; three for medicine; one Physics-Nobel-Prize-Winners-Involved-In-Symmetry-Breaking-3for economics; and one for literature. Not bad for a little country of not quite 10 million people.

But one curious fact: All of Hungary’s laureates ultimately left, or fled, the country. If you are brilliant, ambitious and Hungarian, better get out while you can.

I’ve spent the past week reading up on the Nobels, mostly to relieve the gloom emanating from the U.S. Congress, the White House, the State Department, the GOP caucus. It’s paralysis time in D.C., and America-in-Decline time on the op-ed pages. Reflecting the global mood, Xinhua, the Chinese news agency, editorialized last week that, with a possible U.S. default on the horizon, “it is perhaps a good time for the befuddled world to start considering building a de-Americanized world.”

But then there is the Nobel Prize, and the fact that Americans, both native-born and immigrants, took home nine of them this year alone. Note to Xinhua: China, with 1.3 billion people, has produced a grand total of nine winners in its entire history. Of those nine, seven live abroad, including three in the U.S. Another, Liu Xiaobo, sits in a Chinese prison.

How is national greatness best judged? The typical view is that what matters is size: Size of the economy, population, landmass, navy, nuclear arsenal. Hence the hysteria that China may overtake the U.S. in terms of GDP sometime in the next decade. Hence the treatment of middling powers such as Russia (with a GDP roughly that of Italy’s) as great powers.

But a better metric for greatness is the ability of nations to produce, cultivate, attract and retain intellectual greatness. What is the ratio of Nobel laureates living in any one country to the total population? Russia, with a population of 142 million, has three living Nobel laureates, or one for every 47 million. So much for the land of Pasternak and Sakharov.

A more interesting case is Israel. The Jewish state should be a Nobel powerhouse, given that Jews, 0.2% of the world’s population, have won 20% of all Nobels, including six prizes this year alone. But while Israel can claim nine living laureates, three of them live and teach mainly in the U.S. Why? “There are a lot of smart people in Israel and at the same time there was not a job, so he left,” Benny Shalev, brother of this year’s chemistry winner, Arieh Warshel, explained to the newspaper Haaretz. It isn’t enough for countries to produce geniuses. They also have to figure out how to employ them.

Then there is Europe: Half a billion people with a comparatively minuscule Nobel representation. France has, by my count, just 10 living laureates. Germany does better, with nearly 30, although at least nine of them (including Henry Kissinger, physicist Arno Penzias, and this year’s medicine winner, Thomas Südhof ), have long lived in the U.S. Britain does about the same as Germany.

Why is Europe such a Nobel laggard? In hindsight, evicting and killing most of its Jewish population was perhaps not the best idea—a lesson that still goes unlearned, considering the feverish efforts on European campuses to boycott Israeli academics.

A more contemporary answer is the pervasive mediocrity of higher education throughout the EU. Cambridge and Oxford aside, the Shanghai Jiao Tong rankings list only one European university—the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich—in its top 30, and Switzerland isn’t even a member of the EU. Most European universities, overcrowded and underfunded, can’t hope to compete with their American peers.

Which brings us to the Nobel superpower. Since 2000, Americans have won 21 of the 37 physics prizes, 18 of the 33 medicine prizes, 22 of the 33 chemistry prizes and an astonishing 27 of the 30 economics prizes. Pretty impressive considering our nonstop anxiety about failing schools, mediocre international test scores, undergrads not majoring in math or the sciences, and the rest. Singapore, South Korea and Finland may regularly produce the highest test scores among 15-year-olds, but something isn’t translating: Nobody from Singapore has ever won a Nobel. Korea has one—for peace. The Finns last took a science prize in 1967.

The secret of America’s Nobel sauce isn’t hard to understand: an immigration culture that welcomed everyone from Ronald Coase (from the U.K.) to Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (from India) to Martin Kaplus (from Nazi-era Austria) to Elizabeth Blackburn (from Australia). A mostly private, highly competitive, lavishly endowed university system, juiced by federal funding for fundamental research. A culture of individualism and an ingrained respect for against-the-grain thinking.

The government shutdown is unfortunate; a default would be a disaster. But anyone who thinks America’s best days are behind us should take a close look at the latest Nobel haul. It says something that we take it for granted.

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