Want a Nobel? Forgo glasses, shave, wait till you're 60

Is there a winning set of personal characteristics that can give you an edge in the race to nab a Nobel Prize?

Nobelists Marie Curie, William Lawrence Bragg, and Wilhelm Rontgen defied what have become long-standing odds against women, youth, and facial hair. Wikimedia Commons

When I interviewed Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka back in 2008, I had an inkling he'd win the Nobel Prize one day for his work on stem cells. I didn't pay any mind to his appearance or background.

Yamanaka shared the Nobel in physiology or medicine this week with Britain's John Gurdon for their groundbreaking work on changing adult cells into stem cells, which can become any type of cell in the body.

It turns out that Yamanaka defied the odds. He was born in September, he's 50, bespectacled, and Japanese. According to a historical survey of Nobel laureates by the BBC, which goes back to 1901, those aren't favorable characteristics.

Nobel laureate Shinya Yamanaka: Specs but no whiskers. Tim Hornyak/CNET

The Beeb's tongue-in-cheek infographic came with this question: "Genius, passion, hard work, and a little bit of luck -- that's what we are told sets Nobel Prize recipients apart from us mere mortals. But could there be any secret, hidden factors that come into play?"

Part of the "winning formula," according to this review of the stats, is that laureates are most likely: 60 years old, born in spring, male, American, educated at Harvard University, and married.

That's not too surprising. But oddly enough, the data also shows that most Nobel winners do not wear glasses or beards.

Whiskers, it seems, are not a common sight at the awards ceremonies in Stockholm and Oslo.

The longest beard on a Nobelist was that of Wilhelm Rontgen, who was honored with the first physics prize, in 1901, for his discovery of X-rays.

Of the more than 190 physics prizes awarded since then, only two have gone to women. One was Marie Curie, in 1903, (along with Pierre Curie, who shared it with Henri Becquerel) for work on radiation.

The other was 60 years later and went to Maria Goeppert Mayer for nuclear shell research. She shared, with J. Hans D. Jensen, half the prize; the other half went to Eugene Paul Wigner for nuclear theory.

You can dig through the data used to make the infographic here (PDF).

If you need inspiration for that dream to get the medal, consider William Lawrence Bragg, who won at the tender age of 25.

He got half the physics prize in 1915 for helping lay the foundations of X-ray crystallogaphy. The other half? It also went to the Bragg clan -- his father won it.

 

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