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The makings of a Nobel laureate

  • Michael Levitt, right, a professor at Stanford University who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry, is applauded by Stanford University President John Hennessy, left, during a news conference Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013, in Stanford, Calif. Martin Karplus, Michael Levitt and Arieh Warshel, three U.S.-based scientists, won this year's Nobel Prize in chemistry on Wednesday for developing powerful computer models that researchers use to understand complex chemical interactions and create new drugs. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

This year's Nobel Prizes are being unveiled this week. Are there any predictors that point to who will be selected?

Here's George Beadle's (medicine, 1958) response: "Study diligently. Respect DNA. Don't smoke. Don't drink. Avoid women and politics. That's my formula."

Is precocity in childhood a predictor? When the 2001 economics laureate, George Akerlof, was in second grade, he was asked what he wanted for Christmas, and he said, "A steel mill." Asked the same question by his scientist father, Roger Kornberg (chemistry, 2006) said, "A week in the lab."

But early privilege is not essential. Mario Capecchi (medicine, 2007) was an abandoned child on the streets of wartime Italy. Albert Camus (literature, 1957) grew up fatherless, in poverty in Algiers.

In addition to childhood hardship, many Nobel laureates, men and women, at some point in their lives suffered imprisonment. Nelson Mandela (peace, 1993) set a record with his 27 years in prison in South Africa. Autobiographies show that prison strengthened the convictions of future laureates and toughened their resolution.

Childhood deprivation and adult imprisonment are, however, atypical. The typical Nobel laureate in science is a male, born in a Western country into a middle-class family. His father is a professional, manager or professor. His family is Protestant, agnostic or Jewish. His parents seek out good K-12 schools for him, and he proceeds to a good university. He receives his doctoral degree before he is 25 and undertakes post-doctoral work under a Nobel-level supervisor. He does his groundbreaking research in his late 30s or early 40s, for which he is awarded the Nobel Prize 15 years later.

Rosalind Yalow (medicine, 1977) told women, "You can have it all!" But before this week, only 43 of 862 laureates have been women. The prizes got their start in 1901, before women won universal suffrage in most nations, let alone an equal share of education.

In the sciences, even in contemporary times, the difficulty of combining motherhood with experiments that have to be checked at 3 a.m. has channeled many women into teaching universities rather than research institutes.

In their autobiographies, many Nobel laureates pay tribute to an outstanding mentor. Five of Enrico Fermi's (physics, 1938) post-docs went on to win the Nobel Prize, and 12 of Ernest Rutherford's (chemistry, 1908). Otto Warburg (medicine, 1931) advised an American doctoral student, "If you wish to become a scientist, you must ask a successful scientist to accept you in his laboratory, even if at the beginning you would only clean his test tubes."

Is eccentricity a concomitant of Nobel-level genius? In fact, laureates are mostly down-to-earth and unpretentious. In the United States, 44 percent of marriages end in divorce. Among Nobel laureates in the 20th century, the rate was 11 percent. Much time and energy are saved by a stable family life. Naturally there are exceptions. Erwin Schr?inger (physics, 1933) lived for some years in a middle-class Dublin suburb with his wife and his mistress, while simultaneously carrying on affairs with his students and fathering children with two other Irish women.


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