What makes a Nobel laureate?

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 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% of marriages end in divorce. Among Nobel laureates in the 20th century, the rate was 11%. Much time and energy are saved by a stable family life. Naturally there are exceptions. Erwin Schrödinger (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.

There remains one quality that is essential. It is what Leon Lederman (physics, 1988) called «compulsive dedication.» What distinguishes Nobel laureates is passion for their work, work that engages their hearts as well as their heads.

Let the example of Marie Curie (physics, 1903; chemistry, 1911) and her husband Pierre (physics, 1903) stand for the experience of many others. The Curies became convinced that radium could be isolated from the mineral pitchblende. The Sorbonne assigned them a shed with a leaking roof and a dirt floor, where the Curies worked for years, freezing in winter and sweltering in summer.

«And yet,» Marie Curie wrote in her biography of her husband, «it was in this miserable old shed that the best and happiest years of our life were spent, entirely consecrated to work. I sometimes passed the whole day stirring a mass in ebullition, with an iron rod nearly as big as myself. In the evening I was broken with fatigue…. We worked in the unique preoccupation of a dream.»

This experience — being utterly immersed in and dedicated to a task of great significance — is common to all Nobel laureates, and it is cherished by them as much as the prize itself.

David Pratt compiled The Impossible Takes Longer: The 1,000 Wisest Things Ever Said by Nobel Prize Laureates.

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