A blog for odd things and odd thoughts.

Have we reached Peak Nobel?

Nobel Laureate Dario Fo died on October 13, aged 90. That is sad news, and I don’t want to trivialise it. I have friends who knew and respected him.

However, his death triggered a thought, because it coincidentally was on the same day as some 2016 Nobel Prize winners announcements.

With the Nobel Prize being awarded since 1901, and typically to older people, so many Nobel laureates have since died. Presumably, there must have been a point where we reached “Peak Nobel” – where the number of deaths of Nobel Laureates matches the number of new prizes awarded.

When was it? When did we reach an equilibrium?

Now this is complicated by a number of factors:

  • Definition: The working definition I am using is that Peak Nobel is the year before the first year that all awards were issued but that, as of December 31st, had less living Nobel Laureates than the peak year. There’s a chance that this is premature in a particularly unfortunate year. If that is the case, we may need to revise the definition.
  • Organisations: Prizes are sometimes awarded to organisations, such as the International Red Cross. These should be discarded from the counts.
  • Varying number of recipients: It is always possible that the average number of prizes shared by the maximum of three recipients will increase, pushing the number of living laureates up, and pushing out the date of Peak Nobel.
  • Varying number of prizes: In 1969, a new prize was awarded: the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. This would have pushed back Peak Nobel – we may well not have reached it yet! We should really be generating two dates: Peak Original Nobel, and Peak Extended Nobel.
  • Repeat Winners: We are counting the number of Nobel Laureates, not the number of Prizes owned by Nobel Laureates, so repeat winners like John Bardeen and Frederick Sanger only count once, even if they cross disciplines, like Marie Curie and Linus Pauling.

I started to gather the data, but when I tried to automated the extraction of death dates from Wikipedia, I found they weren’t consistently organised, and got put off.

So, it remains an open question.

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