Jewish Journal

Jewish scientists score Nobel Prizes

by  Tom Tugend

October 9, 2013 | 2:20 pm

Six of the eight Nobel Prize winners in the sciences, announced this week, are Jewish scientists, continuing and enlarging their remarkable record in earning the world’s most prestigious prize. 

Three of the six are Israeli citizens or have close ties with Israeli universities. In Chemistry, new Nobel Laureates Arieh Warshel and Michael Levitt hold dual Israeli and American citizenship, while Martin Karplus fled with his parents after the Nazi takeover of his native Austria.The three were honored for developing multiscale models for complex chemical processes, such as photosynthesis in green leaves. Warshel studied at the Technion and the Weizmann Institute of Science and is now a professor at USC. Levitt also studied at the Weizmann Institute and is now affiliated with the Stanford University School of Medicine.

The prize for Physiology or Medicine was shared by Jewish scientists James Rothman of Yale and Randy Schekman of UC Berkeley. The third recipient was German-born Thomas C. Sudhoff of Stanford. The three were recognized for their discovery of “vesicle traffic,” the process by which proteins and other materials are transported within cells.

The most publicized award in the sciences this year went to physicists Peter Higgs of Britain and Francois Englert of Belgium. They are credited with predicting the existence of the Higgs boson, better known as the “God particle,” the ultimate stuff of which the universe is made. Englert is a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust and holds a special research appointment at Tel Aviv University. He is also a master of understatement, even for a theoretical physicist. When reporters called him and asked for his reaction on winning the Nobel Prize, Englert responded, “You may imagine that this is not very unpleasant, of course.”

Currently, the monetary award for winning the Nobel Prize is $1.8 million, which is shared among the recipients in each category.

Still to be announced, as of Wednesday (Oct. 9), are the new Nobel Laureates in Literature, Peace, and Economic Science.

Announcement of the 2013 Nobel winners continues and enlarges the extraordinary record of Jewish recipients. According to Wikipedia, Nobel Laureates totaled 855 up to this year, of whom 125 were Jews, with another 60 counted as half of three-quarter Jews. In the sciences, the record was even more remarkable, with Jews taking 26 percent of the prizes in Physics, 27 percent in Physiology/Medicine, and 37 percent in Economic Science.

Since Jews make up only 0.2 percent of the world’s population, these are astonishing statistics and have led to considerable speculation about the existence of a “Jewish gene.” However, since Jews are not considered a distinct genetic group, the Israeli daily Haaretz looked elsewhere. It credited cultural aspects, such as the value Jews put on education, or that Jews had to be smart just to survive, whether amidst the tribal warfare of the ancient Middle East or later in exile.

One less positive aspect of all this concentration of mental power has been a brain drain of Israeli scientists to other countries, especially to the United States. For instance, Arieh Warshel, one of this year’s Nobel Laureates in Chemistry, received his Ph.D. at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot and then worked there for four years as a researcher. However, he was unable to get tenure, and with relatively few faculty slots open at Israeli universities, left for the United States.

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