After 206 Nobel prizes, it’s time for the big question…

There have been just over 900 Nobel prizewinners since the first at the beginning of the 20th century. As Jews are 0.2 percent of the global population, we should have won two. We have won 206.

That’s 40 percent of the economics prizes, 30 percent of the medicine, 25 percent of the physics, 20 percent of the chemistry, 15 percent of the literature and 10 percent of the peace prizes.

Were you to write a book about it, there are a number of questions, the first being why have we been so successful? Jews were not allowed to go to university in Britain until 1826.

There was a strict quota at Harvard until the Second World War.

What could there be in our ancestry to make us produce so many brilliant academics? 

What did the 206 win the prizes for? For the non-scientific, this is not easy. Otto Stern, a German refugee before the war in  America, received the physics prize in 1943 for his contribution to the development of the molecular ray method and his discovery of the magnetic moment of the proton. Any the wiser?

Winners often remain in the dark too. Wolfgang Pauli won the physics prize in 1945 and said “the best that most of us can hope to achieve in physics is simply to misunderstand at a deeper level”.

Saul Perlmutter who won in 2011 was even more basic. He said: “Probably the single most important thing about the Nobel prizes for most people is whether they can get the coveted parking space on campus.”

Perlmutter won for his work on supernovae – very bright new stars – but said: “If you ask any one of them ‘Do you stand by your theory. Is this the answer?’ I think almost everyone would say “No. No. No. I’m just trying to expand the range of possibilities. We really don’t know what’s going on.”

The work of the prizewinners, however, is immensely important.  Does it matter whether you can produce indigo artificially? If you’re wearing jeans, that blue colour is artificial indigo.

That invention won a Nobel prize.

When the scientists make their discoveries, it’s a chance for immortality, even at the cost of making their work even more unintelligible.

Thus the Pauli Principle and the Cherenkov Effect. Or try to figure why it was worth a Nobel prize to work out why discovering the neutron beam method and the demonstration of the doublet structure of the lepton through the discovery of the muon neutrino was worth it.

Jewish Nobel Prize Winners by Derek Taylor (Vallentine Mitchell), is available to buy now, priced £25

Some Jewish winners you might know – Albert Einstein; Sir Ernest Chain, who made penicillin affordable; Henry Kissinger, Bob Dylan, Shimon Peres and Milton Friedman, but most you will not have heard of. But why so many Jews? Well, we had a couple of thousand years’ start on the competition.

Most ancient civilisations considered disease a punishment of the gods; Judaism held that if you fell ill, someone should cure you.

Even so, many Jewish prizewinners for medicine had difficulty getting a medical school to accept them.

The BMA after the Second World War advertised jobs which were specifically not for “Jews or men of colour”. Yet we have 59 Nobel prizes for medicine.

The work of the winners is often little-known outside their scientific fields. Who  knew Richard Wilstatter (1915 chemistry) worked out poor crops came from a shortage of magnesium in the soil and saved the lives of millions by the resulting improvement in crop yields?  There are many more examples.

So do the Jewish Nobel prize winners have anything in common? One thing: If you go back into their ancestry, you will find they all came from Orthodox families.  Because otherwise they wouldn’t have been born Jews.

  •  Jewish Nobel Prize Winners by Derek Taylor (Vallentine Mitchell), is available to buy now, priced £25

Foreword – Extraordinary contributions – by Theresa May, Prime Minister

Prime Minister Theresa May
(Photo credit: Chris Radburn/PA Wire via Jewish News)

Today it is hard to imagine a world that does not reflect the influence of Einstein, Pinter, Wiesel and the more than 200 other Jewish men and women who have received Nobel Prizes in the 117 years since the first was awarded.

From making the scientific discoveries that explain the world around us to creating the literature that gives it meaning, and from pioneering the medical breakthroughs that save innumerable lives to leading the peace-making initiatives that save countless more, generations of Jewish Nobel laureates have made an immeasurable contribution to the world in which we all live.

It is one that is all the more remarkable given the relatively small number of Jewish people in the world – despite making up just 0.2 percent of the global population, Jewish laureates account for more than a fifth of all winners – and the unimaginable, unprecedented levels of discrimination, oppression and persecution they have been forced to overcome.

For those of us who have dedicated our lives to the idea that opportunity and success should never be limited by either an individual’s background or the prejudice of others, the story of the Jewish Nobel laureates is truly inspiring.

So I thank Derek Taylor for sharing it with us all, and for showing how a tiny ethnic minority, who have faced so many obstacles for so many generations, can still become the unlikely architects of their own success.

Listen to this week’s episode of The Jewish Views podcast! SPECIAL EDITION – Chanukah in the Square!

About the Author
Derek is an author & former editor of the Jewish Year Book
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