Nobel Prize In Numbers

About the Nobel Prize

Alfred Nobel was a Swedish chemist, engineer, inventor, businessman and philantrophist of the 19th century. He is most notably known for inventing the dynamite and as a founder of the Nobel Prize.

The Nobel Prize was established in 1895 when Alfred Nobel signed his last will in which he left most of his wealth to be given to those who have conferred the greatest benefit of humankind.

The prizes are awarded annually since 1901, with the exception during the World War I (1914-1918) and II (1939-1945), in one of the following categories:

  • Physics
  • Chemistry
  • Physiology or Medicine
  • Economic Sciences (since 1969)
  • Literature
  • Peace

Note: the Nobel Prize data was analyzed for 1901-2022.

Portrait of Alfred Nobel


Overview

The majority of Nobel laureates are males (91.1%), followed by females (6.1%) and the rest of the prizes were awarded to organizations (2.8%). Most of the prizes are reserved for individuals, except for the Peace prize which could be awarded to organizations as well.

Laureates per Category

The total number of awarded laureates per category is higher than the total number of laureates from the previous chart, due to some laureates being awarded more than one prize.

Multiple Awards

Are there any Nobel laureates that were awarded more than one prize? Yes, there are.

Declined Awards

Are there any Nobel laureates who were awarded the Nobel Prize, but they ended up rejecting it? Sure!

There are essentially two ways of rejecting the prize:

  • Declined: the laureate rejected the prize due to personal reasons.
  • Restricted: the laureate was forced to decline the prize by their government.

Prize Money

As part of the Nobel Prize, each Nobel laureate receives:

  • A Nobel Prize diploma
  • A Nobel Prize medal (18 carat gold)
  • A certain amount of money awarded in SEK (Swedish Krona)

Since the amount of money that comes with the Nobel Prize is considerable, if one wanted to get rich by winning a number of Nobel Prizes, which category should they pick in order to earn the most?


For those who are not familiar with the box plots: the vertical lines represent minimum/maximum value, the box represents 25 and 75 quartile (ages of 25% to 75% of analyzed laureates if they were sorted by age), the line in the middle of the box represents median (middle value) while the circles are the outliers.

It looks like the most lucrative categories are Economic Sciences, Literature and Peace. But why exactly are laureates in these categories earning more than laureates of others if the same amount of prize money is allocated for each category?

Prize Sharing

The Nobel Prize could be split among up to three people who had contributed to the final solution. Considering that some fields are more collaborative than others, how often were Nobel Prizes shared in each category?

From the analyzed data above we can deduce that the most individualistic category is Literature (96.5% of prizes were awarded to 1 person), whereas the most collaborative is Physiology or Medicine (64.6% of prizes were shared between two or three people).

Prize Sharing Over Time

Considering that low hanging fruit is usually picked first, is it possible that the prize sharing has increased in contemporary times due to problems becoming harder and harder to the point where one person alone can’t discover a solution completely on their own?

Judging by the inclination of the chart lines, it looks like the Nobel Prize is shared more often in comparison to the early years when the Nobel Prize was first awarded, therefore it’s possible that the problems have become much harder to solve.

On the other hand, it’s also possible that due to technological advances (such as the internet), ideas are traveling faster and people are more likely to improve each other’s ideas rather than coming up with entirely new fields of research.

Prize Distribution

Nobel Prize per Birth Country

The USA clearly dominates with the number of laureates born per country. Since the population of the USA is much higher compared to other countries on the chart, we will make further analysis on a per continent basis in order to even out the differences in population size.

Nobel Prize per Birth Continent

From the charts above, it looks like people born in Europe are more likely to become a Nobel laureate with North Americans slowly catching up. But how are Nobel Prizes distributed across categories? Is there a category in which one continent is much better than the rest?

While Europe still dominates in most categories, it looks like North America produced the most economists. The numbers may be easier to compare in a tabular format below:

Nobel Prize per Affiliation

Just because someone was born on a certain continent that doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to live on that continent indefinitely. Considering that people tend to travel more often than in the past, how do migrations affect the distribution of Nobel Prizes if we compare the number of laureates per affiliation?

On the first glance, it looks like the North American universities dominate in the number of laureates, but how does the long tail of affiliations affect the final numbers?

Despite the majority of laureates being born in Europe, in 2020 North America surpassed Europe in the total number of laureates per affiliation.

This could mean only one thing: the European future laureates/scientists are migrating to work across the pond. Either there is a lack of funding/research positions in Europe, or the work conditions are just so much better in the USA.

In the past 20 years Asia is also on the rise, but this rise is concealed due to the head start of Europe and North America.

Cumulative affiliation charts, however, do not tell us the whole story since Literature and Peace prize affiliations are based on the laureate’s place of birth. In order to get a better view of migrations, we should check the cumulative affiliation numbers for each category separately. When and for which category did the North American affiliation takeover happen in this case?

The USA based affiliations took over in Physics in the early 2000s, in Physiology or Medicine in 1990s and in the Economic Sciences already back in the 1970s. Europe is still on top in Chemistry, Literature and Peace categories.

Migrations

How many laureates born on a certain continent have decided to migrate and work in another before being awarded a Nobel Prize? If they had decided to migrate, where they have decided to go?


Each box represents a continent on which the laureates were born, while the bars are showing the number of affiliations. If the laureate was affiliated with more than one continent, affiliations of both continents were increased by one. Organizations, Literature and Peace prize laureates were not included, since their affiliation defaults to their country of birth.

Since migrations across continents are painting the picture with pretty broad strokes, it’s better to display the migrations on a level of a country. Which country is able to retain their people, and which country is losing them?


Only the top 15 countries, sorted by the total number of laureates, were chosen to be displayed in the migration matrix below. The numbers in the matrix represent the number of laureates, while the background color of the matrix field represents a percentage based on the number of laureates (the darker the color, the more laureates there are in that slot). Organizations, Literature and Peace prize laureates were not included, since their affiliation defaults to their country of birth.

If the country was able to retain their laureates, the color on the diagonal should be of the darkest color when comparing it to the rest of the fields in a row. This does not seem to be the case for Poland, Canada, Austria, Italy and Scotland — the majority of their laureates migrated to another country.

Age

Average Age

The average age of the Nobel laureate is growing over time, from early 50-ies in 1901 to late 60-ies in 2022.

This observation could denote that breakthroughs are getting harder, as the low hanging fruit was already picked. It could also mean that with a bigger population the competition is getting fiercer, therefore one has to “stand in line” before their work is acknowledged as valuable.


The dots represent ages of laureates at the time when they have received the prize (this does not mean they have come up with the groundbreaking ideas at this age; that has happened earlier). Blue dots represent males, while the red dots represent females. The orange line is a regression line with a 0.95 confidence interval.

Age Extremes

How old was the oldest Nobel Prize laureate? How old was the youngest Nobel Prize winner?

Age per Category

How is the laureate’s age distributed across categories?

From the age distribution above, it looks like the Economic Sciences, Literature and Peace laureates are in general older than those working in Physics, Chemistry and Physiology or Medicine. Considering that the average age of awarded laureates is rising over time, what is the influence of each category on the average age?

Age per Category Over Time

The dots represent laureate ages at the time when they have received the prize; blue dots are males, red dots are females. The orange line represents a regression line with a 0.95 confidence interval. You can hover over each dot to see details about each laureate.

The average age of awarded laureates is rising across most categories, except for the Economic Sciences and Peace category. But just because the average age of laureates is rising across STEM categories, that doesn’t necessarily mean laureates have come up with Nobel Prize worthy ideas in their late age. For this reason we should check the ages of laureates at the time when they have published their award winning papers.

Age at the Time of Publication

The publication data only contained the data for Physics, Chemistry and Physiology or Medicine categories for 1900-2016. For more info about the data, see the Data Sources section.

As expected, most papers that ended up winning the Nobel Prize were not written by scientists in the last few years of their careers. While there are some outliers (marked with circles), the majority of laureates wrote their award winning papers in their early thirties to late forties — an age that is considered a prime working age for most of the population.

This is a rather surprising discovery, since there are many theories claiming how scientists peak early in their life, when in reality they are not that much different compared to the rest of their peers.

It’s also interesting to note how laureates working in Physics tend to be around 10 years younger in comparison to the ones working in the other two disciplines. Does this mean that Physics is more open to new ideas, while Chemistry and Physiology or Medicine tend to be more conservative fields where more reputation is needed?

Reasons Behind the Laureates Age Increase

What could possibly affect increase of the average age of Nobel laureates over time? If the problems are getting harder, that should also be reflected in the increasing ages of laureates at the time of publication, as one would need more experience before their work would be considered novel and important.

Both Physics and Chemistry laureate’s publication age has increased by around 10 years, whereas in the case of Physiology or Medicine it stayed more or less constant. But how do we distinguish between the problems becoming harder to solve and the competition for the Nobel Prize getting fiercer?

We can compare the duration between publishing the prize winning paper and being awarded the Nobel Prize over time. If this “recognition duration” is increasing over time that would imply that with more people working in the field you have to wait longer before it’s your turn for getting the prize. On the other hand, if recognition duration is more or less constant over time (while we know that the average age of laureates is increasing), that simply means the problems are becoming harder to solve.

Judging from the charts, it looks like there are no obvious patterns between publication year and the number of years one had to wait in order to be awarded a Nobel Prize (the confidence band of a regression line is wide). This means that Nobel Prize worthy problems are indeed becoming harder to solve.

To get a better feeling of the distribution of laureate’s recognition durations, we can also take a look at the histogram below:

Life Expectancy

Compared to the average life expectancy numbers of continents in which the Nobel laureates have worked in, how well do the laureates fare in this department?


We assume that laureates who died on a certain continent also lived there at least for the last part of their life, therefore the average life expectancy of the continent of their death applies to them. We are comparing the life expectancy of laureates who died between 1950-2019, see Data Sources for more info.

The black line represents the average life expectancy for the continent. The orange line represents a regression line for laureates’ ages of death with a 0.95 confidence interval.

Across all continents the Nobel Prize laureates are expected to live above the average life expectancy of the continent in which they worked and lived. But how is the age of death spread across categories? Are chemists living longer than say physicists?


The chart is showing the regression lines of ages of death for every Nobel Prize category of both Europe and North America. Other continents are not displayed, since they don’t have enough laureates to display meaningful regression lines.

Europe

  • Chemistry (92)
  • Physiology or Medicine (91)
  • Economic Sciences (91)
  • Physics (89)
  • Literature (87)
  • Peace (84)

North America

  • Physiology or Medicine (92)
  • Economic Sciences (92)
  • Physics (91)
  • Literature (87)
  • Chemistry (87)
  • Peace (86)

Data Sources

About

The main purpose of this “research” was to check if age plays a role when it comes to achieving first class work in science as mentioned in Richard Hamming’s You and your research talk:

Age is another factor which the physicists particularly worry about. They always are saying that you have got to do it when you are young or you will never do it. Einstein did things very early, and all the quantum mechanic fellows were disgustingly young when they did their best work. Most mathematicians, theoretical physicists, and astrophysicists do what we consider their best work when they are young. It is not that they don’t do good work in their old age but what we value most is often what they did early. On the other hand, in music, politics and literature, often what we consider their best work was done late. I don’t know how whatever field you are in fits this scale, but age has some effect.

According to the numbers, however, achieving first class work in science is not bound only to exceptionally young people, since most scientists wrote their Nobel Prize winning papers in what is considered a prime working age (early thirties to late forties). While my initial question was answered fairly quickly, I got carried away and I kept poking the data until my curiosity was satisfied. And, as they say, the rest is history.



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