Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Nobel Prize: The Kiss Of Death?

Hong Kong, China

In researching Sunday's post about the paucity of full-time foreign correspondents employed by U.S. daily newspapers, I counted the number of living Nobel laureates as a comparison. The numbers of surviving winners differed greatly by the fields in which they won their awards. (Since I counted manually, the numbers may be off by one or two.)

Total number of people who have been awarded a Nobel Prize: 768

Total still living: 275

Physics: 74
Medicine: 69
Chemistry: 51 (Fred Sanger won twice but is counted once)
Economics: 34
Peace: 28
Literature: 19

The fact that laureates in medicine tend to be long-lived isn’t a surprise. They specialize in health, after all.

But what’s with the Methuselan qualities of the physicists and chemists? These are guys – all but 4 are men, with Marie Curie winning twice – who spend their days playing with radiation and volatile compounds.

The answer seems to be that the prizes for physics and chemistry tend to be awarded to teams of up to three scientists, increasing the total number of recipients. In addition, many physicists and chemists, like mathematicians (for which there is no Nobel), tend to make their breakthroughs while young, allowing them to live long enough to earn the prize (which cannot be awarded posthumously).

The low number of living economics laureates is easy to explain. While the prizes in all other categories were first awarded in 1901 (and were created by Alfred Nobel’s will), the economics prize was not instituted until 1969 (and was created by the Swedish central bank in Nobel’s honor).

The small number of living Peace Prize winners is a bit of mystery, since the Peace Prize tends to have the shortest “waiting period.” While some scientists waited decades to have the importance of their discoveries confirmed, United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan was awarded the prize during his fourth year in office. Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho were awarded the Peace Prize nine months after completing the Vietnam War ceasefire agreement. (Tho declined the award.)

The number of potential living Peace Prize winners is reduced by the fact that, more than any of the other prizes, the Peace Prize is sometimes awarded solely to an organization, such as Doctors Without Borders (1999), the United Nations Peacekeeping Forces (1988) or the International Committee of the Red Cross (1917, 1944, 1963 – the most prizes to a single recipient). Still, 28 living laureates seems low. Perhaps it’s because, in contrast to the bright young scientists, politicians and activists have to work most of their lives to obtain the positions of influence that allow them to end wars or intercede in famines, receiving the award late in life.

And then you have the writers, 19 men and women, barely enough people for a baseball game. Maybe it’s because the prize is almost always given to a single individual. Maybe it’s because it takes decades to establish a body of recognized work. Maybe it’s because spending your days sitting at a desk, deep inside your head, is a most unhealthy lifestyle.

But the numbers teach a lesson. If you win the Nobel Prize in Literature (pictured), prepare an acceptance speech, fly to Stockholm to accept the award, and finalize your will.

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Anonymous gerard kiernan said...

this is reminiscent of a comedian i recently heard who said "there's something wrong with florida. my parents went down there and 20 years later they were dead."

3:40 AM  

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