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A Nobel Prize for Creativity

Several universities lay claim to laureates no matter how tangential the affiliation. The aura of success 'is serious business' in academia.

October 10, 2005|Karen Kaplan | Times Staff Writer

The University of Chicago lays claim to an astonishing 78 Nobel laureates -- the most of any institution in the United States and second in the world only to England's University of Cambridge.

Renowned physicists Hans Bethe and Werner Heisenberg and economics guru Paul A. Samuelson are all counted among Chicago's Nobel brethren.

Wait a minute.

Didn't Bethe spend virtually his entire career at Cornell University? Isn't Samuelson considered the heart and soul of MIT economics? Did Heisenberg even spend more than a few months in Chicago?

"I think the University of Chicago counts everyone who ever walked through there," said Herbert Kroemer, a UC Santa Barbara professor who shared the Nobel Prize for physics in 2000.

Counting Nobel Prizes is the ultimate academic sport. It is a no-holds-barred exercise in selective memory and fuzzy math.

Universities that normally pride themselves on academic virtues and scholastic precision can find themselves grasping for any plausible thread of affiliation with those anointed by Stockholm.

The University of Cambridge in Britain touts philosopher Bertrand Russell as its first Nobel laureate in literature, yet conveniently fails to mention that the 1950 prizewinner was fired for his antiwar activities during World War I.

During the Depression, Johns Hopkins and Columbia universities refused to give Maria Goeppert Mayer a real job with pay (she did research as a volunteer while her husband was a professor), but both were eager to claim credit for her 1963 Nobel Prize in physics.

The University of Chicago is widely viewed as having the most expansive method of counting Nobel laureates.

"There are some people on our list who were here only for a few years," acknowledged Larry Arbeiter, who tracks the prizes for the university. "I have often wondered: 'Is that the appropriate way to do that? Is there a better way to do it?' I haven't been able to come up with one."

Some schools have resisted the temptation to go Nobel-scrounging, using the strict criterion of only claiming laureates currently on their campuses.

"Some of them are really quite restrained," said sociologist Harriet Zuckerman, author of "Scientific Elite: Nobel Laureates in the U.S."

"But not many."

*

Since the first gold medals were handed out in 1901, Swedish dignitaries have awarded 780 Nobel Prizes for achievements in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, economics, literature and peace. (The Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences is to be announced today; a date for this year's literature announcement has not yet been set.)

However, the total number of prizes claimed by universities reaches into the thousands.

Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, who made his fortune from the invention and manufacture of dynamite, might take some pride in the extent to which the claiming of his awards have become an intercollegiate sport.

He set forth in his will that his fortune be used to endow "prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind."

Each prize -- often split two or three ways -- includes a substantial cash award meant to give winners the financial freedom to focus entirely on their research. This year's award is $1.3 million.

In the early 1900s, most winners hailed from Europe. The first crop included German physicist Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen for his discovery of X-rays and Swiss philanthropist Jean Henry Dunant, who inspired the Geneva Convention and founded the Red Cross.

After World War II, the American scientific and technical juggernaut that propelled the country to superpower status came to dominate the Nobels.

Predictably, competitive tallies soon followed.

"Although such competition seems trivial, it is serious business," Zuckerman wrote in "Scientific Elite."

Nobel Prizes make schools attractive to prospective students, faculty and donors, conferring the aura of a winner. A university's roster of laureates is "probably more significant than [the college rankings in] U.S. News and World Report," said F. Sherwood Rowland, a UC Irvine professor who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1995.

UCLA's two consecutive Nobels in chemistry and medicine in the 1990s clearly boosted the Westwood campus' standing. "It meant a lot to UCLA," said Paul Boyer, a professor emeritus who won the chemistry prize in 1997.

The problem is that some universities can't help engaging in a little Nobel Prize inflation.

There is good reason for ambiguity in the accounting.

"A university does many things," said David J. Gross, a UC Santa Barbara professor who won the Nobel Prize for physics in 2004. "It teaches, so it's proud of its students who went on to do good things. They're proud of their researchers who worked at the institution who have done good things. And of course they're proud of the people who are there now and their impact on current research and current teaching."

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