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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. (Eric Risberg / Associated Press)

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.

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