All Nobel prizes in 2004 have been decided, and it's fun to look at the nationality of the winners.
First, there are two Nobel prizes that I don't view quite seriously anymore, namely the awards for peace and literature. The peace prize went to a militant environmentalist woman from Kenya, while the Nobel prize for literature was given to an Austrian pornographic feminist communist writer (with a Czech last name; Jelinek means a "little deer"). Well, both of these women sort of fit the general political pattern of the previous winners - for example, Yasser Arafat was also a hero of the peace prize - and if I knew these ladies in advance, they would almost certainly be expected candidates for me.
Let's now look at the more serious prizes, namely for physics, chemistry, medicine, and economics. The latter is not quite a Nobel prize, according to the Nobel purists, but let me call it a Nobel prize anyway because the history of the Nobel prizes seems pretty irrelevant.
Most of the winners of these "non-trivial" prizes are Jews, and most of the winners are affiliated with the US institutions. Well, it's not too surprising that at least five of them are Jews: two Israeli winners, Avram Hershko and Aaron Ciechanover of the Technion in Haifa, share the award for chemistry with another Jew, namely Irwin Rose from the USA, while the physics winners David Gross and David Politzer who are also Jews from the States shared the asymptotically free Nobel prize with Frank Wilczek. Frank's family came to the USA from Poland and Italy, but my understanding is that he is not a Jew.
The Jewish nation has a long tradition of respect to education and science - it may even be better if you're a good student as opposed to a football player - and a significant portion of the leaders of theoretical physics are Jewish. In fact, my diploma advisor from Prague told us the following true joke about antimatter:
Besides our Universe, there also exists an anti-Universe where everything is anti-. For example, one of the important sciences over there is antiphysics, and it is studied by Anti-Semites.
Let's now look at the citizenship of the laureates. All three physics winners are Americans, much like one of three chemistry winners and both laureates of the Nobel prize for medicine. One of two economics Nobel prize winners is an American; the other one is Norwegian, but he is affiliated with three U.S. institutions.
Well, articles have been written about America losing its dominance its sciences. Other nations start to catch up with the States, they said. The percentage of American articles in prestigious journals is decreasing, and so forth. The reason may be that the visa obstacles slow down the inflow of brains to the USA, and so forth.
The Nobel prizes don't quite inform us about the present situation - the physics laureates had to wait for 29 years, for example - nevertheless it is obvious that the dominance of America in the science Nobel prizes continues to be overwhelming. Let's try to find the reasons why Europe (and Japan etc.) is behind. There are three main reasons:
- prestige of the US institutions
- way of thinking
But money are not the whole issue. America is able to attract brains from the world also because its universities are more prestigious. They are more prestigious because there is a lot of money flowing over there, but it is really not the only reason.
The third point is the "way of thinking". Since the 1960s, Europe focused on applied sciences and it simply has not rewarded risk-taking and basic research as much as America. America is the place where the scientists can afford to have big goals, even risky ones - and big dreams often come true.
String theory may be the best example. Its ambition is nothing less than a theory of everything. There is a plenty of reasons to be convinced that these ambitions are probably realistic; on the other hand, there is no guarantee that things will work out perfectly at the end. String theory definitely requires risk-taking, and therefore it is mostly a product of the US scholars. (Thanks to Gabriele Veneziano from CERN who really started the whole field.)
Many places in Europe - England, the Netherlands, and Italy (Triest), among others - are doing very good work, but America is still ahead. On the other hand, there are still many countries in Europe where string theory does not exist. The Czech Republic is an example - Josef Kluson and Rikard von Unge from Masaryk's university in Brno continue to be the only exceptions. There is no string theory in Prague whatsoever. But the Czech Republic is certainly not the only example in Europe.
Europe is also rather fragmented, despite the unification process. The ideas about European unification sometimes apply to bureaucrats only, but the real "unity" does not generalize to the lives of normal people, and science is an example. It is still very unusual that a scientist from Brno would travel to Vienna to attend a seminar even though these two places are closer than many pairs of highly connected places in the USA.
Even though I said that Europe has focused on the applied sciences, it is still true that the thinking of their American colleagues is usually more pragmatic, more realistic, more balanced, in a sense, even if they work on very ambitious (and perhaps even rather abstract) projects. Science in the USA is more practical, more connected with the real applications and with the commercial sector.
Only time will show whether the dominance of the USA in sciences (including economics) will fade; the Nobel prizes don't seem to indicate it at all so far. Everyone else like Europe can take over, but Europe would first have to adopt certain features of American thinking - and it does not seem terribly likely at this moment.
The discussions above did not mention Japan and other places in the world - especially because I know next to nothing about their climate. My guess is that whatever I said about Europe applies to Japan, too.