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The 2020 Nobel Prizes: Women and the Nobel Prize

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I have traditionally posted on the Nobel Prizes and women once a year. I had not intended to do so this year, as I have more-or-less closed this blog. However, the results of 2020 were unusually interesting, and I will make an exception. I might or might not make future exceptions.

(I refer to earlier years for background, assumptions, etc.)

Looking at the three core Prizes, women provided 3 out of 8 Laureates and took 1.25 out of 3 Prizes, including the entire Chemistry Prize and a share of the Physics Prize—both of which are historically quite rare.

Considering 2018, there might be some change underway:* The female Laureates of 2018 and 2020 have doubled the number of female winners in Physics from two to four and almost doubled the Chemistry winners from four to seven. Moreover, the 2020 Chemistry Prize was won without joint male Laureates, which is a further rarity.

*Or just coincidence. If there is change, I leave unstated what type of change, for want of sufficient data. (But I note that I am highly skeptical to ideas like “STEM fields oppress women”, which was an original motivation in this series.)

The last ties in well with a portion of my discussion from 2019: The possibility that some women* have received a (partial) Prize more through having the right husband or male team-member(s) than through own merit. Here there is little risk of that.

*Men too, obviously, but in the context of the proportions of male respectively female winners, these would have a far smaller impact.

The “extra-curricular” Economy Prize went to two men; while the out-of-competition Literature and Peace Prizes went to a woman respectively an organization. We, then, have a total of 4 women to 7 men and 2.25 Prizes to 2.75. Whether looking at the core Prizes or the overall situation, this is arguably the best women’s year of all times.

Excursion on Literature:
Unfortunately, I suspect that some type of quota is in place, striving for approximately alternate male/female winners, or at least a rough long-term 50–50. In the last eight years, we have the sequence* F M F M M F M F, for four male and four female winners, and only one exception to the alternating pattern—and that exception might have been caused by the choice of Bob Dylan.

*F(emale) and M(ale). I tried W(oman) and M(an), but that was near unreadable.

Looking back further, since 2004 and the unfortunate win of Elfriede Jelinek, we have the following sequence: F M M F M F M M M F M F M M F M W. Here the trend is weaker, with three (new) and seven (in all) female winners to six (new) and ten (in all) male winners, with the difference being carried by a single three-in-a-row for men 2010–2012. Noting that other non-literary concerns, including other “diversity concerns”, might have played in, and that woman might well have a harder time as authors in the non-Western parts of the world, this is still suspect. For instance, having an only second (!) Chinese Literature winner in 2012 might have trumped the fear of having three men in a row, as might having the first Peruvian (in any category) in 2010.*

*True, this leaves open why yet another male Swedish winner was needed in 2011, but the general point of sex not being the only concern holds. Indeed, as Wikipedia on Tomas Tranströmer claims: “The Swedish Academy revealed that he had been nominated every single year since 1993.” A “this year might be the last chance” criterion could have played in; and he did die just a few years later.

This type of regularity is unlikely if chance was the only thing playing in. By analogy, flip a coin thrice and there is a chance of 1/4 that it will be three-of-a-kind over just these three throws,* while here the entire series of seventeen only contained one three-in-a-row and no four-or-higher-in-a-row. Further, the above sequence sees a full twelve transitions out of sixteen possible; flipping a coin, the expectation value would be eight.** If the sexes, unlike a fair coin, do not have a 50–50 probability, then the regularity becomes the more remarkable.***

*The first flip is uninteresting, there is a 1/2 chance that the second has the same side up, and another 1/2 that the third does too, for 1/4 in all.

**There is a 1/2 chance of a transition with any throw (excepting the first). 16 x 1/2 = 8.

***For instance, if we assume 60–40, then the chance of three-in-a-row over just the first three throws rises to 0.6^3 + 0.4^3 = 0.28 compared to the original 1/4 = 0.25. 70–30 gives 0.37, etc.

(But I stress that the above is merely suspect—not outside what can legitimately happen by chance.)

Excursion on the Chemistry Prize:
My first reaction when reading the motivation “for the development of a method for genome editing” (cf. Wikipedia on Chemistry Laureates) was that this was more a matter of Medicine/Physiology than Chemistry, which would have made a female win less unusual. However, the last few decades, similar motivations appear to be quite common. I am not certain whether I agree with general idea, but it is, then, not likely to be very important in the current context.

Excursion on references:
I did not keep track on references during writing, but mostly various Wikipedia pages. I am loathe to track them back, as this text has taken much longer than intended—exactly the type of problem that moved me to close this blog.

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October 25, 2020 at 7:24 pm

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The 2019 Nobel Prizes: Women and the Nobel Prize

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Time for the yearly Nobel-Prize update:

Compared to 2018, the historical male dominance has returned.

The three* regular Prizes (Physics/Chemistry/Physiology or Medicine) saw a total of nine laureates, all men.

*As noted for 2018, I will ignore Literature and Peace in the future. However, they would not have changed the picture this year, with both laureates being men.

The “extra-curricular” Economics Prize saw two men and one woman (Esther Duflo).

In total, there were eleven male to one female laureate, and 3.75 to 0.25 Prizes.*

*Note that, in my understanding, Duflo received a quarter, not a third, as the price was shared equally between Michael Kremer and the team of Duflo and her husband, Abhijit Banerjee.

Excursion on 2018:
The 2018 analysis was slightly hampered by the delayed awarding of the Literature Prize. It is noteworthy that the delayed award did go to a woman (Olga Tokarczuk), which makes 2018 a truly exceptional year for the women. Factoring in the rarity of a share of the Physics Prize, 2018 could be argued as even on par with 2009.

Excursion on the married couples:
With Duflo, we have another instance of a husband/wife team sharing a Price. While this is unremarkable when looking at husbands,* the proportion of female winners is sufficiently large that there could be a distortive effect, e.g. in that a brilliant male scientist has his merely good wife as a tag-along. Official information gives four** other cases, leaving us with five couples:

*Not because the reverse scenario of brilliant female with tag-along husband would be impossible, but because removing a few male winners would not affect the overall proportions.

**Not counting the also mentioned Gunnar and Alva Myrdal. While they did both win, they won in different fields in different years, which reduces the risk of a tag-along effect. To boot, Alva was awarded the Peace Prize (1982), which is not under consideration. Also note Marie Curie’s Chemistry Prize below.

  1. Duflo/Banerjee, Economics in 2019. Duflo is only the second female laureate (in the field in question).
  2. May-Britt and Edvard Moser, Medicine in 2014. May-Britt is one of twelve female laureates. With Gerty Cori (cf. below) this makes two in twelve or one in six.
  3. Gerty and Carl Cori, Medicine in 1947. She was the first female laureate by thirty years.
  4. Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie, Chemistry in 1935. Irène is still one of only five female laureates. She was only the second female recipient of any non-Literature/non-Peace Prize, behind only her mother (cf. below).
  5. Marie and Pierre Curie, Physics in 1903. Marie is still one of only three female laureates, and was the first by 60 years. Indeed, she was the first female laureate in any category, Literature and Peace included.

    (But note that she won the 1911 Chemistry Prize unshared, a few years after Pierre’s death. Moreover, that the delays between effort and award were far shorter back then, implying that Pierre need not have had any effect on the Chemistry Prize, even had he had one on the Physics Prize.)

(Additional data from a Wikipedia page listing female laureates. With reservations for oversights on my behalf.)

A similar tag-along effect could, obviously, exist even without a married relationship, when a team is jointly awarded a Prize but the contributions of the laureates vary in importance. Again, such an effect would have only a small impact on men, while the impact on women could be considerable. (Most winning teams have been all-male, implying that the number of male laureates could drop, but it would still be far larger than the number of female laureates, and the number of “male” Prizes would remain almost or entirely unchanged.)

Excursion on the Economics Prize:
With repeated awardings of the Peace and Literature Prizes for “being Left”, I have some fears that the Economy prize will eventually be similarly politicized. The motivation for the 2019 Price could point in this direction: “for their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty”, which might be an indication that the award is less for scientific accomplishment and more for choice of topic. (I have not attempted the very considerable leg-work needed to judge this in detail.)

Other potential suspects include “for integrating climate change into long-run macroeconomic analysis” (William D. Nordhaus) and “for his analysis of consumption, poverty, and welfare” (Angus Deaton).

As a depressing contrast, this years Literature choice, Peter Handke, has been criticized for reasons unrelated to literary accomplishment—his opinions relating to Serbia et co. appear to be considered unacceptable.

(All motivations from official information.)

Written by michaeleriksson

October 14, 2019 at 7:38 pm

The 2018 Nobel Prizes: Women and the Nobel Prize

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Time for the yearly Nobel-Prize update:

Unlike 2017, women did reasonable well, with participiations in three out of five categories and putting up a total of three laureates out of twelve.* This even included a share in the Physics Prize—for only the third time, after 1903 and 1963.

*Including the Economy Prize. The Literature Prize is moot (cf. below).

The Literature Prize was not awarded (so far?) for 2018, due to an extremely chaotic situation within the awarding “Swedish Academy”. The situation is worthy of a longer text of its own; however, the information that has reached me through the press over months has been confusing, incomplete, and often looked like a game of mutual blame, which makes me unwilling/unable to write said text.

With this chaos on top of my previous criticism of both the Literature and Peace Prizes, and factoring in their very different character, I will probably ignore both of them in any future updates—I can no longer take either seriously. (And to the degree that they can be taken seriously, they are not that relevant to the original context of my interest.)

Written by michaeleriksson

October 11, 2018 at 2:19 pm

The 2017 Nobel Prizes: Women and the Nobel Prize

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To briefly follow-up on women and the Nobel Prize, I note that 2017 saw a total of 11 laureates (not counting the Peace Prize, awarded to an organization). Again, all of them were men.

See the 2016 article for a deeper discussion, or the article that caused my interest in the matter.

Written by michaeleriksson

October 14, 2017 at 11:00 pm

The 2016 Nobel Prizes II: Women and the Nobel Prize

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One of my articles was almost upset by the 2009 unprecedented naming of no less than five female laureates, including a historically very rare Chemistry Prize and a first Economics Prize. I left a corresponding disclaimer that I would revisit some issues if this turned out to be a normal state of affairs.

It did not*: The following year saw not one single female laureate, neither did 2012—and the same applies to this year. 2011 did see three, but they all shared the Peace Prize. The remaining intervening years saw one or two laureates, of which only two came in scientific fields (the 2014 and 2015 Prizes in “Physiology or Medicine” each saw a woman among the three** winners.) The others were all Peace or Literature Prizes.

*Here and elsewhere I draw my numbers from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_female_Nobel_laureates and http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/lists/women.html.

**The science Prizes are almost always shared, typically between the maximum three laureates allowed per Prize and year. Here and elsewhere, I will assume equal shares for the sake of simplicity and of avoiding leg-work. I do know of at least one historical deviation, however: Curies first Prize was shared in equal halves between the Curies and Henri Becquerel, with Marie and Pierre effectively receiving a quarter each.

Counting in 2016, we have seen a total of 8 female laureates with a total of 4 and 1/6 Prizes in seven years—a little more than one laureate and clearly less than one Prize per year. For comparison, the (admittedly cherry-picked) years 1945–1947 saw three laureates and 1 and 5/6 Prizes for very comparable numbers. 1963–1966 women did almost as well in numbers and scored in both Physics and Chemistry—in the 50 (!) years since, they have scored one Chemistry laureate and not one single Physics laureate.

In other words, there is at this juncture no reason to assume that we have entered a new era, nor that women are being artificially held back, as naive feminists like to claim: That the science awards have seen so little change, or even change for the negative, while Literature and Peace Prizes regularly go to women, is a clear sign that the main underlying reason is one of inherent differences between the sexes in these fields, be it with regard to ability, priorities, interest, or some other factor. How the Literature and Peace Prizes should be interpreted with regard to ability* is very unclear, due to the extreme subjectiveness** and the obvious recurring political agendas behind the awards; however, these are definitely areas where women are more inclined to get involved than in the sciences.

*But, outside of the scope of Nobel Prizes, I do note for the record that several of my own favorite authors have been women.

**Bear in mind that while the sciences can be subjective too, e.g. regarding what discovery is the more important, the problem is far smaller there. If worst comes to worst, almost any result in, say, Physics is something that we can test today or will be able to test in due time. There is no such test for works of fiction and many works lauded by one qualified observer is consider garbage by another. (Including the works of semi-recent Nobel Laureate Elfriede Jelinek—the choice of which caused a dissenting member of the election committee to resign in protest…)

As an aside, I see at least two possible explanations for the anomalous results of 2009: The one is sheer co-incidence, the equivalent of drawing a one-color poker hand. This is unlikely for any given hand, but keep drawing hands and it will eventually happen. The other is that female candidates were given an artificial leg up. In fact, this type of artificial support is extremely common in Sweden, where the drive to have men and women share everything 50–50 can be virtually pathological. Many consider the relatively low number of female laureates a failure of the election committees—or even of the respective field of science it self! They simple fail to understand that this type of award must be about accomplishment, not feeling good; about equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 1, 2016 at 9:56 pm

The 2016 Nobel Prizes I: The Literature Prize joining the Peace Prize as a joke

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On my website, I have at least two articles relating to the Nobel Prize for which the 2016 Prizes have given more input. Since I still have not gotten around to consolidating the website, I will address them in two blog posts (this being the first):

I have already concluded that the Peace Prize is a joke, often being awarded to those unworthy, for political reasons, for things that might deserve some other award but not one for peace, or otherwise absurdly. Many similar criticisms can be raised against the Literature Prize, which has a similar degree of subjectiveness and is also, as far as can be guessed from the outside, occasionally abused to support a certain ideology, world view, or similar*.

*Today, this would be something in the general Leftist family. In earlier years, others might have had an advantage.

This year, one of the most controversial awards in the history of the Literature Prize has taken place: Bob Dylan.

When I first heard it, I actually assumed that it was an real, non-metaphorical joke… At this point, I am not willing to give the Literature Prize much more credence than the Peace Prize—and the Peace Prize absolutely none.

Now, I do not deny that Dylan has been one of the more important makers of music of the preceding century. He has a considerable talent, he has inspired and influenced many of his colleagues, and his commercial (if somewhat paradoxical) success has been considerable. If not for his weakness as a singer, I would likely be a fan myself.

However, even if we assume that his works should count as literature*, there are considerable questions as to his worthiness when it comes to this type of award. There are many, many extremely capable “regular” authors that have accomplished so much more in terms of literary achievement and are still awaiting their Prize. Worse: Is Dylan even the most accomplished lyricist in the world of music? Unlikely: He is more likely to be the (or one of the) most famous and visible among the lyrics-centric artists—and one who had considerable importance for the sixties movements that find approval with the election committee. (Realistically speaking, and without denying his very considerable abilities, much of his fame is a result of having had the right message for the societal moods of the 1960s. Ten years earlier or later and he would have been a smaller deal.) His musical attraction also stems to a large part from his highly unusual melodies and delivery, and when we look only at lyrics his stature is considerably weaker than when we look at his music as a whole**. All in all, I sincerely doubt that Dylan was given the Prize in recognition of his literary accomplishments, with political reasons and/or an attempt to cater to the wide masses on behalf of the committee being more likely explanations.

*I am open to the idea myself. Indeed, when we studied Swedish literature in school, the starting point was medieval ballads. However, others might want to rule it out, and they could turn out to be right. Certainly, if viewed as literature, there should be a strong focus on lyrics and not the overall music.

**This is obviously a problem when trying to judge more or less anyone: What part of the overall impression is lyrics and what is music? Would the lyrics that seem so great work without the music or with different music? Etc.

As for the actual Peace Prize: Santos is not someone I had on my radar screen until very recently. However, it is notable that his peace plan failed in a recent referendum (for good reasons, in my impression, being to lenient with evildoers) and he might not have an entirely white vest himself, depending on how the above Wikipedia page is interpreted. In a best case scenario, he was chosen a year too early; in a worst case scenario, he is the same complete dud that Obama turned out to be in terms of making the world more peaceful.

Excursion: If Dylan is not the greatest musical lyricist, who is? Frankly, I have nowhere near the depth and breadth of knowledge to answer that question authoritatively, even discounting the necessary degree of subjectiveness and the complication of dividing credit within groups. However, I suspect that the number of candidates stronger than Dylan is very large and that someone with the corresponding depth of knowledge in a given, mature area of music (with lyrics…) could find several or many such candidates in that area—opera, musicals, rock, blues, jazz, …

Note in particular that many of the candidates will be local forces singing in international obscurity. For instance, Cornelis Vreeswijk and Evert Taube were living legends, when I grew up in Sweden, but I doubt that any non-Swedish readers will have ever heard of them. (Admittedly, they are both dead and therefore ineligible.) Similarly, many candidates are likely to be found outside of the infamous Top-40 and be unknown even to their own compatriots.

For myself, I am very impressed with the works of Tori Amos* and Depeche Mode in terms of lyrics. The artist for whom I have spent most time listening to the lyrics is probably Eminem*—while they are not necessarily stylistically or aesthetically pleasing, there is a lot to think about with regard to what they tell us about Eminem and how that might apply to ourselves. Simon and Garfunkel go in the other direction, with lyrics that are rarely deeply thought-worthy but often beautiful or original. My exposure to REM has been comparatively small, but from what I have heard so far they could rate very highly.

*In a twist, both Tori Amos and Eminem appear severely troubled and if the often raised accusation of misogynism towards Eminem is given credence, a corresponding accusation of misandrism towards Tori Amos seems appropriate, although she is considerably more subtle. (Consider e.g. the song “Precious Things” or the album “Boys for Pele”—the one containing lines like “I want to smash the faces of those beautiful boys”; the other even having a thematic title that implies sacrifices of men to a goddess… ) In both cases, it can be argued that what appears is not so much a statement about perceived truth about the other sex—but of personal weakness, feelings of inadequacy, and/or frustration with the other sex. To boot, this is something that the respective artists seems to be at least partially, possibly fully, aware of, partly using the lyrics as a means of self-exploration or -therapy.

In a first draft, I also included Sondheim, specifically citing “Send in the Clowns”, and Paul McCartney*. I do not rule out that I would rate either above Dylan; however, for the purposes of candidates for “best lyricists” they likely fall short, with my favorable impression being too based on the overall music. (With the added complication of who contributed what to that impression: A very significant part of McCartney’s work is co-credited with Lennon, often with unclear responsibilities. Sondheim’s greatest success and, to my personal knowledge, best result was the collaboration “West-Side Story”, with music by Bernstein. The music by Sondheim himself has been so-so in the few works I have seen in full, e.g. “Sweeney Todd”.)

*John Lennon is dead and not eligible. (But I would likely still have favored McCartney.)

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November 1, 2016 at 9:52 pm