Random facts about Nobel prize nominations in chemistry

Fun fact: nominations for Nobel prizes are kept secret for 50 years. Luckily, after that cooldown period they are publicly available. Anyone can browse the database and even make some infographics about  geography and terrible gender bias of the prizes in pretty much any discipline.

Some more complex analysis, however, to the best of my knowledge haven’t been done. So I’m filling this gap here. Let’s take a look at some statistics for Nobel prize nominations in chemistry for 1901 – 1966 years.

First, the age. Below is the plot that shows normalized distribution of ages for nominees at the year of nomination (green), life span of all nominees (blue) and awarded laureates (red). As you can see, candidates are normally nominated while they are still active but have probably passed their most productive years (mean age at nomination 55.8 years). The average life span for Nobel prize nominees and laureates is pretty high, 79.0 and 76.1 years, respectively. It’s for people who died before 1966, so it’s quite above life expectancy even for developed countries. Also the fact of being awarded with Nobel prize didn’t extend laureates’ lives.

ageDensity

The oldest nominees at the time of nomination were:

Name Age at nomination Year of the last nomination Year of death
Sergei N Winogradsky 96 1952 1953
Paul Walden 91 1954 1957
Fritz Feigl 91 1966 1971
Gabriel Bertrand 90 1957 1962
Domingo Giribaldo 89 1949 ?

None of them received a Nobel prize. If Fritz Feigl continued to be nominated till he died, he could have repeated Winograndsky’s record. But we won’t find this out until at least 2021.

There were three nominees who became centenarians. As above, none of them became a laureate after they’d been nominated. Also despite quite a long lives none of them lived enough to learn that they’ve been among the nominees.

Name Birth yr Death yr Life span Age at the last nomination
Arnold Orville Beckman 1900 2004 104 60
Michael J Heidelberger 1888 1991 103 74
Friedrich Hund 1896 1997 101 61

At the other end of the scale, there were 5 scientists nominated for the Nobel Prize before they turned 30.

Name Age at the 1st nomination Year of nomination Award
Henry G Moseley 28 1915
Charles G Darwin (the other one) 28 1915
Robert Burns Woodward 29 1946 Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1965
William E Doering 29 1946
Joan P Folkes 29 1956

Over time, the number of nominations per year grew, especially after the World War 2. On average a nominee got 2.33 nominations per year.

nomYear
Unique nominees (black line) vs total number of nominations per year (red line)

The distribution of nominations, however, was extremely skewed with the most typical case of a single nomination per person. However, due to few extreme outliers, on average there were 7 nominations per person. In the plot below, colored pixels are awarded nominations.

Rplot01

Zooming into Nobel laureates only, we see that some 25 nominees in chemistry secured Nobel prizes in other disciplines.

Rplot02

Now, even more closely, only chemistry laureates here. It took on average more than 21 nominations to get a Nobel Prize in chemistry (median 15).

Rplot03

Three most often nominated chemists were Linus Pauling, Hermann Staudinger, and Robert Woodward, all of whom collected over 100 nominations and eventually received their well-deserved Nobel Prizes in Chemistry.

Name # of nominations Nobel Prize year
Linus C Pauling 130 1954
Hermann Staudinger 119 1953
Robert Burns Woodward 111 1965

But there were three lucky ones, who’s got their chemistry prizes with just a single nomination.

Name Nobel Prize year # of nominations
Arthur Harden 1929 1
Francis W Aston 1922 1
Harold Clayton Urey 1934 1

On the other hand, some notable scientists were nominated quite often but did not get the Nobel prize. The data ends in 1966 but neither Ingold nor Reppe received the award afterwards.

Name Year of the last nomination # of nominations
Sir Christopher Kelk Ingold 1966 72
Walter Reppe 1966 65
Georges Urbain 1939 56
Gilbert N Lewis 1946 41

The database has information not only about nominees but also about nominators (which are also secret for 50 years). So it’s possible to look into some interactions between these groups. I thought it would be interesting to see if there’s any geographical bias in nominations, i.e. if the nominators tend to nominate their compatriots.

Rplot04

It looks like most nominees don’t share the country with their nominators. But there are so many countries to choose from and only one homeland. So there must be some level of geographical bias, which is har do estimate.

Let’s break it down by individual countries. Here’s the fraction of compatriot nominees for each nominator country. To clarify, nominees and nominators from currently non-existing countries were assigned to wherever they’d be living now.

BiasChart
Nominator bias plot

Wow, that Uruguay on top looks odd. Indeed, those 80% compatriot nominations are all coming from the same year. In 1949 four out of five Uruguayan nominators proposed Domingo Giribaldo for the Nobel prize. After that they haven’t proposed anybody else. Ever. Sadly, I couldn’t find any information about the nominee, even his date of death.

Quite disappointing is seeing USA at the second place with 3:1 odds of nominating someone from the US vs. from anywhere else. Germany was not much better with 2:1 odds. But hey, maybe, that’s because their scientists are really better? Here’s the opposite chart, showing for each nominee country fraction of international nominators. You can think of it as a proxy for true international recognition.

Rplot05
‘International recognition’ plot

Aha, so American and German scientists are not as good as they think they are. Or at least the rest of the world doesn’t rank them that high. Or everybody is just preoccupied with pushing their compatriots so they overlook great foreign scientists? Maybe it’s the law of small numbers that makes some countries look much better or much worse than average? To account for all these caveates, I’ve computed ‘compatriot bias’ by subtracting ‘international recognition’ (the last plot) from the nominator bias (penultimate plot). Also countries that had less than 5 unique nominees were omitted. Red dashed line is the ‘average’ compatriot bias computed from the bar plot and equals (1788 – 1958) / (1788 + 1958) = -0.082. Number of total nominations per country is color-coded and written next to the data point.

So here it is, the compatriot bias for Nobel Prize nominations from 1901 till 1966.

finalPlot
Countries ranked by adjusted compatriot bias

Indeed, Germany and United States are heavyweights here, with a lion share of all the nominations. And at the same time it still looks like they value research done in their home country as more Nobel prize-worthy than the rest of the world thinks it is. Swedes on the other hand look like true internationalists, to the point of neglecting their own scientists. So they do a great job in keeping the award as objective as possible.

 

 

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Author: Slava Bernat

I did my PhD in medicinal chemistry/chemical biology of G protein-coupled receptors and then explored some chemical biology of non-coding RNA as a postdoc. Currently I'm working in a small biotech company in San-Francisco Bay area as a research chemist. I'm writing about science, which catches my attention in rss feed reader and some random thoughts or tutorials.

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