Jewish Journal


October 9, 2013

5 reasons Jews win so many Nobel prizes


Members of the Tribe are winning Nobel Prizes left and right. Although Jews make up only 0.2 percent of the world's population, they win an astonishing 22 percent of Nobel Prizes.  In fact, six have won so far this year. 

This year's crop of Jewish winners includes:

 - All three scientists who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry: Arieh Warshel, Michael Levitt and Martin Karplus

 - Francois Englert who was half of the team that won the Nobel Prize in Physics

 - James E. Rothman and Randy W. Schekman who were two of the three scientists awarded the Nobel prize in Medicine

We'd like to offer 5 possible explanations (in no particular order) for why Jews win so many Nobel Prizes.

Reason #1: The David v. Goliath Syndrome

What it means: As an oft-repressed group, we Jews have always had to try harder to come out on top. Obviously, the sheer numbers of our population aren't going to sustain us. And despite the early Israeli Kibbutznik identity of being the 'New Jew' (tanned, strong, physically-gifted rather than simply intellectual) our brute strength is far from our strong suit. So, as a whole, we are out to prove something.

Reason #2: Social Capital

What it means: How many times has the tired joke come up about Jewish mothers wanting their children to grow up to be doctors and lawyers? Or at the very least marry a doctor or lawyer? Well, there's some truth to the pressure of growing up in a household where not going to college is not an option. If success within the education system is expected and demanded, then you're going to have a lot more people (out of fear of failure and dishonoring their families) entering the medical and law fields, and succeeding, gosh darn it, because Jewish guilt is hardcore.

Reason #3: Religion is about Knowledge

What it means: Across the board, Judaism stresses learning and anlysis -- not just rote memorization of doctrine. The stereotype of 'two Jews, three opinions' is deeply ingrained in our culture. We accept nothing at face value and yearn to know the 'why' and 'how' of every situation life throws our way. We value analysis. Other religions value dogma.

Reason #4: Survival Mechanism

 What it means: After the destruction of the Second Temple (the center of Jewish religion and ritual), Jews needed to become literate to continue to study and practice Judaism. Literacy is what helped the religion survive and kept us from becoming assimilated into the surrounding cultures. Literacy also happens to be a skill necessary for economic development. This became an advantage for the Jewish population from the Middle Ages onward.

Reason #5: We're Outsiders

What it means: As perpetual outsiders--especially ones that are constant targets of hate crimes, Jews have learned to be cautious, even distrustful of others, and have no problem questioning authority and the status quo. The perennial side-eye that Jews give to the world allows us to see things through a unique lens. If you're comfortable questioning what is seen as 'truth,' and pushing the boundaries of analysis, then you're probably going to stumble upon discoveries a bit more frequently, and be more open to trying something un-orthodox (no pun intended.)

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