This year’s Nobel laureates in physics, medicine, and chemistry are nearly all men in their late-sixties and early-seventies, but in the first half of the 20th century, the average age was 47. The question is what caused the shift.
Experts noted that in nearly all traditional fields, the laureates now tend to fetch the prize later in their lives. But the trend is more noticeable in chemistry, physics, and medicine.
One Probable Cause
According to a recent analysis, the average age of Nobel laureates started to steadily climb in the 1950s and hasn’t stopped today. Some believe that the information explosion may be the culprit.
However, the authors of the analysis have another theory. If you visit The Nobel Museum in Stockholm, Sweden, you’ll notice that a century ago the world had just about 1,000 physicists. In our times, that figure boomed to one million.
So, experts believe scientists now face longer waiting before they can get a Nobel prize. Plus, no one guarantees now that you’ll be awarded the prize after a breakthrough.
Thousands of scientists worldwide make a major discovery early in their lives, but the Nobel Prize committee’s standards have been getting higher over the years. In other words, a scientist may win an award after many years of painstaking research.
Physics Laureates Getting Older
Researchers noted one more aspect: aging trends differ quite a lot across scientific fields. For instance, literature and peace Nobel prize winners now tend to win the award faster than their peers in physics.
One cause may be linked to the advances made in quantum mechanics over the last 100 years. One researcher explained that in the first half of the 20th Century, physicists made discoveries at a dizzying speed.
As a result, the Nobel committee began recognizing the achievements at a faster rate. In the 1930s, two laureates working on quantum mechanics got the award in their early-thirties. But those were the times when “mediocre physicists could discover great physics,” as one researcher put it.
Additionally, today’s Peace Prize laureates tend to get younger. According to researchers, this group now wins the prize faster because the committee no longer waits to see whether their work will succeed completely.
Women Still Underrepresented
However, one more question remains: Why are most laureates males?
Despite their growing numbers, male Nobel prize candidates remain overrepresented. Researchers, however, noted that diversity has improved in recent years despite a male to female ratio not very flattering to women.
Experts believe that equal representation may soon turn into reality. Researchers at The Nobel Museum said they had no evidence the panel overlooked the work of female would-be laureates. Yet, there is one exception.
In 1903, the panel refused to nominate Marie Curie for her work in physics due to a technicality. In response, her husband, who was nominated refused to accept the prize. The committee overlooked Mrs. Curie late submission and it granted her the award.
As a result, in 1903, polish-born Curie became the world’s first woman to win the prize.
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