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What Makes a Nobel Laureate? The Demographic Keys to Success

It helps to be an older man from Europe

The demographics of Nobel laureates. Photo: BBC

Say you want to win a Nobel Prize. Sure, the $1.3 million sounds nice, but it’s the prestige you’re after. You know you need to be outstanding in your field to be recognized by the Swedish Academy. But there are tons of people around the world putting out stellar work all the time. Are you likely to be one of the few singled out?

The BBC created an infographic breaking down the demographics of the Nobel laureates of yesteryear. Less a guide than a reflection, the analysis shows some interesting trends about who tends to win the big Swedish medal.

Right off the bat, there are a host of things you can’t control. If you want to win a Nobel prize, you should probably be a man. You should also be inching into your senior years. (Sorry, women, but your best bet is the Peace Prize, or maybe literature. If you want to win a science Nobel as a woman, we fully support you, but the odds don’t look good.)

Oh, and you should probably be European. Americans have a disproportionate showing when broken down by country, but Europeans win overall. (Except in economics, but that’s not a real Nobel prize anyway.)

Okay, now what? So you’re a (probably white) man from Europe, in your 60s, and you’re really, really good at what you do. But that’s still not enough. You want an ace up your sleeve? Well, according to the BBC’s analysis, you need to get married, ditch your glasses for contacts and shave that messy beard, pronto. Nobels don’t go to people who caricature a genius scientist sporting crazy hair and glasses in a lab coat.

Of today’s three Nobelists, though, the two 60-something white men flouted the prescription to avoid glasses and beardiness. Only Thomas C. Südhof, at 57, appears to be clean-shaven and glasses-free.

More from Smithsonian.com:

More Chocolate, More Nobels
Nobel Prize Winners Are Put to the Task of Drawing Their Discoveries

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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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