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And The Typical Nobel Prize Winner In Physics Is …

UPDATE (Oct. 4, 8 a.m.): British scientists David Thouless, Duncan Haldane and Michael Kosterlitz have won the 2016 Nobel Prize in physics. The three, who are affiliated with U.S. universities, were honored for their work on “theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter.”


Who is the typical winner of a Nobel Prize in physics? He’s a white guy who wears glasses. He’s balding. He graduated high school at age 15, and his favorite sport is golf. He is, in fact, John Bardeen. We are looking at typical winners as the Nobels are announced (physics is expected on Tuesday) and are defining “typical” here as “winningest,” at least when it comes to non-numerical categories that can’t be mathematically averaged. And that makes Bardeen the type specimen. He shared the physics Nobel in 1956 for the invention of the transistor and shared another in 1972 for developing the first workable theory of how superconductivity operates on a microscopic level, which is today used in magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI. He’s not the only Nobel winner to pick up multiple awards, but he is the only one solely in physics.

In a more generic sense, Bardeen fits most of the beats of the typical profile. He’s a man (the physics Nobel has been won only twice by women since its advent in 1901, making it the Nobel Prize with the smallest share of female winners — 1 percent of all 201 winners). 1 He’s an American (the U.S. has had 66 winners, second-place Germany didn’t even get half that). The average of Bardeen’s ages at the times of his wins is 56, compared with the overall average winner age of 55. But there’s one spot where Bardeen’s typical doesn’t look like the generic typical.

When he won his awards, Bardeen was working at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a Midwestern, public university that is currently No. 44 on U.S. News & World Report’s list of top colleges and universities in the U.S.2 Now, UI does have one of the top 10 physics programs in the U.S., but Bardeen is only its second physics Nobel winner. In contrast, the top winning institutions have been, by and large, tonier private schools — Stanford with 10 wins,3 Harvard with nine, and the University of Cambridge in England, Caltech and MIT with seven each. It’s a fitting legacy for a guy who was known for being a soft-spoken family man who preferred picnics to making headlines.

CORRECTION (Oct. 3, 5:02 p.m.): An earlier version of this article gave the incorrect number of Nobel Prize winners in physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. John Bardeen is one of two, not the only one.

Footnotes

  1. Economics has had fewer female winners, with just one. But Elinor Ostrom makes up 1.3 percent of the winners in that category.

  2. He did the work for his first award at Bell Labs, though, which has seven awards and is tied for third place in the award count. The Nobel Foundation tracks affiliated institutions by where the winners were working when they got their award, not necessarily where they did the research that led to the award.

  3. Stanford has won nine physics Nobels and the Stanford-operated SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory won one, which we’re counting as a total of 10 wins for Stanford.

Maggie Koerth-Baker is a senior science writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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