Why Do Jews Win So Many Nobels?

Jews make up only 0.2% of the world population, yet comprise 22% of Nobel laureates. What's the deal?

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Jews have a reputation for being smart. The fact that all three recipients of this year's Nobel prize for Chemistry are Jewish is yet another brick in the wall of that long-lived perception.

As such, it joins many others: In fact, it seems that no less than 22% of all Nobel laureates have been Jewish.

Now, Jews comprise 0.2% of the world population. One might call their representation in the august company of Nobel prizewinners disproportionate.

One could argue that the figure, presented by multiple sources, does depend on 'what is a Jew'. But even if one weeds out recipients who, say, eat of the swine or smoke on Shabbat, it's still a lot.

Science has shown that despite being identified with certain mutations such as Tay-Sachs, Jews do not constitute a distinct genetic group – there is no "Jew" gene. So, what makes Jews so smart?

Cultural elements, apparently, though debate rages over which ones – from "Jews value education" to "They had to be smart to survive" in exile. (Not to mention before exile. The ancient Middle East was just as war-ridden as it is today.) So, are Jews smarter? Who knows. What's sure is that these Jewish laureates have made the world a better place, and a more knowledgeable one.

The God particle and the Jew

A number of these Jews are Israelis, though some are Israeli no more, at least in residence. One such is Arieh Warshel, who on Wednesday was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry along with his Jewish colleagues Michael Levitt and Martin Karplus. Warshel studied at the Technion but now works at the University of Southern California. The three won the prize for creating computer models that can delve into complex chemical processes. For instance, their work underlies computer models of proteins, which are horribly complex molecules. They also helped elucidate the pathways of photosynthesis, without which life as we know it would not exist. So the more we understand it, probably the better.

Tuesday's crop of new Nobelists included the Belgian scientist - and Jew - Francois Englert, for his role together with the renowned Peter Higgs in predicting the so-called 'God particle' – the ultimate stuff of which the universe is made.

Preceding this lot, Israel can boast 11 laureates in the award's 65-year history. The Israeli scientist Daniel Shechtman of the Technion University won the Chemistry prize in 2011, for discovering quasicrystals. Normal crystals are orderly, period. For instance they only break along certain lines. Quasicrystals have order but they're not periodic – that's science argot for they look messy and can occupy whatever space they're squeezed into. Shechtman was reportedly queasy about the scientific reaction to his discovery, on which he therefore sat for a while. And this helps mankind how? Can you pack your luggage more efficiently? Probably you could, but it's his paradigm shift in chemistry, which translates into manufacturing, that won him the plaudits.

In 2004, two Israeli biologists, Aaron Ciechanover and Avram Hershko, won the Chemistry award along with Irwin Rose (yup) for their work on a peculiar protein named ubiquitin. Now, most proteins differ from species to species. A mouse's keratin won't be exactly the same as a lizard's or your mother-in-law's. Not ubiquitin, which is from the word "ubiquitous". It's the same. They were the ones to elucidate that it's a sort of cellular garbage truck (to massively oversimplify): it directs proteins to destruction. Their work has implications for understanding a host of diseases.

The Israeli-American Daniel Kahneman of Princeton won the Economics prize in 2002 despite irritating investors the world wide with his inconvenient theory that the markets are irrational. Bad news, folks. But it's the sort of thing that's better to know than not to know.

Laureate Arieh Warshel, one of the several Jews to win a Nobel in 2013 (for Chemistry, in his case).Credit: AP
Albert Einstein.Credit: AP