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As Nobel season opens, one researcher looks back on a century of steadily increasing U.S. dominance

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If you find yourself in the reality show doldrums, pining for the rivalries of Top Chef or American Idol … perk up. The biggest reality show in Science Town kicks off October 4. That’s right: it’s Nobel prize season.

Unfortunately, the decision making has gone on behind the scenes; there will be no calling in or texting to vote for your laureate of choice. Nor will you see footage of a winner answering an early morning phone call (or conversely a loser hurling a cell phone across a room). But you can comment on the winners on our website — Science News will be covering the science prizes as they are announced. Here’s the skinny:

On Monday October 4 up to three scientists will be named the winner or winners of the Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine (yes, that ‘or’ is awkward, blame it on Alfred Nobel, father and benefactor of the prizes. His final will and testament spake thus: “the person who shall have made the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine…”). Tuesday, October 5 brings Physics and Wednesday October 6, Chemistry. (Peace and Economics will be awarded Friday October 8 and Monday, October 11, respectively; Literature TBD.) This year’s winners will receive 10 million Swedish kronor, (nearly $1.5 million, which is shared if there are multiple winners for one prize), a diploma and a gold medal. The winners have to wait until a December 10 ceremony to receive their bling.

We’re not offering predictions on individual winners, but we can bring you some trends. In a paper posted on arxiv.org, robotics scientist Jürgen Schmidhuber of IDSIA and University of Lugano in Switzerland examines how each country’s share of Nobel prize winners has changed since the prizes were first awarded in 1901. The analysis reveals, for example the “brain drain and brain gain” that countries experienced following World War II (United States: gain, Germany: drain). This not only reflects that the U.S. still had a solid infrastructure for supporting science, but science also had cultural, social and financial support, Schmidhuber says. In 1946 the Research Grants Office was created at NIH, and private donors and companies also made the States a productive place for research.

But the Nobel category that the United States first excelled in wasn’t actually science, it was peace. Americans have taken home the largest share of the Nobel Peace Prizes since 1929, except for 1944-1945, when Switzerland briefly took the lead.

The United Kingdom, for being such a small place, also takes a large share of the science prizes over the years. This may in part reflect the rise of English as science’s language, says Schmidhuber, which in the early part of the century was dominated by Germany.

The category where no one country dominates, perhaps not surprisingly, Schmidhuber notes, is literature. “You don’t need a huge lab to produce excellent literature, you just need a pencil and a piece of paper,” he says.

If you aren’t sure on whom to bet in the Nobel office pool, information megalith Thomson Reuters offers predictions. The brain(s) behind the company’s picks have correctly named 39 winners since 1989.

Citations

J. Schmidhuber. Evolution of National Nobel Prize Shares in the 20th Century. [Go to]. Posted September 14, 2010.

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