December 10, 2010

Eye on the prize

Hey, it’s Nobel Prize Day – if you’ve been dabbling in palladium-catalyzed cross couplings in organic synthesis like this year’s chemistry prize winners, you too might one day get a medal and a million dollars.

Alfred Nobel

Unless you’re a girl.  In 109 years and the awarding of 543 prizes (including the prize in economic science). women have won Nobels only 41 times. That’s 8%. Oh, sorry – I counted Marie Curie twice (physics and chemistry).  So it’s 40, or 7.6%.

Clearly, the Nobels have a real glass ceiling problem.  (And so do the sciences, of course.) They get a pass for prizes before WWII – even in 1973, women accounted for only about 7% of academic positions in science.  Thirty years later, their numbers had risen to about 30%. So why are there  no women Nobel prize-winners at all this year?

Maybe the committee agrees with Larry Summers that “in the special case of science and engineering, there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude…”

I have no idea what “variability of aptitude” means, but Larry should tune into some statistics, particularly the work of Marcia Linn at Berkeley.

Girls now earn 48% of all math major undergraduate degrees in the U.S. There is no math Nobel, but it’s a good yardstick because math is critical to science – without it you aren’t going far in physics or chemistry.

Here are two women Nobel winners who broke through the ceiling in science: Carol Greider and Elizabeth Blackburn shared the Physiology Prize in 2008 with Jack Szostak for their work on chromosomes and the enzyme telomerase:

Carol Greider and Elizabeth Blackburn. Photo by Gerbil.

Alfred Nobel, btw, set up the prize after reading his own obituary.  The newspaper had confused him with his brother, but he found his list of accomplishments so dispiriting that he was determined to create some sort of legacy.  He certainly succeeded.



  1. thats bogus…7.6%! boo 😦

    Comment by Nina — December 10, 2010 @ 12:58 am | Reply

  2. But don’t forget about all those great women who were home making bread for their family and didn’t
    even go to high school, who’s great-grand-daughters are now science majors. And the beat goes on.
    Thank you Alfred & Jean.

    Comment by avery — December 11, 2010 @ 9:58 am | Reply

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