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Are Nobel Prize winners getting older or younger?

by on October 7, 2016

I ask this question because the BBC News website just published an item about how this year’s Nobel laureates for physics, medicine and chemistry are ‘all men, at least 65 years old and mostly over 72’. The article headline asks ‘Why are Nobel Prize winners getting older?‘ but according to the handy graphics on the BBC website this trend seems to be confined to science subjects. There does’t seem to be much change in the field of litertaure and there’s a reverse trend in peace. The latter is pragmatically explained as the Nobel Committee apparently not wanting to wait to see if peace measures are wholly succesful so recipients get their prizes earlier.

So what’s been happening? In physics, the prize winners used to have an average age of 47 but are now typically in their late sixties. The BBC article poses three possible explanations, drawing on comments from Gustav Källstrand, a senior curator at the Nobel Museum. One, that there is so much information and theory around today that it takes almost a lifetime to assimilate and utilise it so that you can only achieve a major scientific breakthrough in later life. Second, is that scientists make discoveries when they are relatively young, but with thousands of others doing the same, and the need for a high standard of validation, it can take many years to win an award. Third, is that physics in the first half of the 20th century was a rapidly growing field dominated by quantum mechanics (‘a new toolkit which could quickly yield discoveries’) with many young physicists making discoveries quickly.

I’m not even going to comment on the gender aspects of the prizes beyond noting that the trend to award prizes later in life apparently explains why the current gender ratio is still reflecting gender practices sometime in the mid 20th century!

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