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Physics Nobel nominees, 1901–70

29 September 2022

Analyzing more than 3300 nominations from the first seven decades of the world’s preeminent physics prize reveals trends and shortcomings.

Montage of nominees for the Nobel Prize in Physics.
A montage of people who were nominated for the Nobel Prize in Physics through 1970. Credit: Greg Stasiewicz for Physics Today; photos are either in the public domain or from the AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives

Five years ago, Physics Today published an interactive visualization of all the people who had been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Physics from the inaugural prize year of 1901 through 1966, the most recent year for which records were available. Under the Nobel bylaws, information about nominations is kept private for a half century, or potentially longer if the nominee is still alive. Since 2017 the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which administers the science prizes, has added four more years of physics nomination data to its public archive.

Nominees at a glance

Below is an updated and visually refreshed version of our 2017 interactive graphic. Each circle in the array represents one of the 577 people who were nominated for the Nobel Prize in Physics from 1901 to 1970. Once you’ve explored the graphic, read on for new analyses of the nomination data.

Physics Nobel nominees, 1901–70

Use the radio buttons to categorize the nominees by country or by gender. The size of each circle represents the total number of nominations for a particular person through 1970. The darker shade of each color indicates that the nominee ultimately received the physics prize. You can also search for a specific physicist by typing a name in the text box, or hover over the circles to explore all the nominees. Credit: Greg Stasiewicz for Physics Today; data from the Nobel nomination archive; photos are either in the public domain or from the AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives

Significant figures

  • 577 people were nominated through 3307 total nominations. 116 (20%) of the nominees would go on to earn the prize.
  • 10 (1.7%) of the nominees were women, including laureates Marie Curie (1903) and Maria Goeppert Mayer (1963). Astronomer Janine Connes was the only first-time female nominee from 1967 to 1970. Lise Meitner was nominated 30 times, the most for any woman through 1970, yet was never honored by the Nobel committee for her contributions to the discovery of nuclear fission. Chien-Shiung Wu (12 nominations through 1970) did not share in the 1957 prize, which was awarded for the discovery of parity violation, even though she performed the experiment that confirmed parity violation.
  • 217 (38%) of the nominees were from the US, the most for any country; 50 of them became laureates.
  • First-time nominees added since our 2017 analysis include seven people who ultimately received the prize: Leo Esaki (1973), Ivar Giaever (1973), Brian Josephson (1973), Antony Hewish (1974), Arno Penzias (1978), Robert Woodrow Wilson (1978), and Alexei Abrikosov (2003). Abrikosov’s prize was awarded 33 years after his first nomination.
  • Murray Gell-Mann, a 1969 laureate, was nominated the most times through 1970, appearing on 134 ballots. With 84 nominations, German theorist Arnold Sommerfeld got the most nominator support of anyone who never received the prize. As Ashley Smart wrote in his breakdown of Nobel snubs, “The knock against Sommerfeld was that he had no single, great achievement that the committee could point to, even though his collective body of work stacked up to those of contemporaries who won the prize.”
Wolfgang Pauli and Chien-Shiung Wu.
Wolfgang Pauli (left) and Chien-Shiung Wu. Pauli, a 1945 laureate, was nominated for the Nobel physics prize 29 times. Wu, one of only 10 women who were nominated through 1970, received at least a dozen nominations but was never awarded the prize. Credit: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Segrè Collection

About the data

  • The data encompass only nominations for the Nobel Prize in Physics. Those who received Nobel Prizes in other fields and not in physics (such as 1908 chemistry laureate Ernest Rutherford) are not included as laureates in the graphic.
  • The nomination data cover only the years 1901–70. Many of the nominees garnered more nominations in later years, but those data are not yet available. However, nominees who received the physics prize in later years are denoted as laureates.
  • Nominees are assigned a country according to the nation most frequently cited in their nominations. For example, Enrico Fermi is assigned Italy because most of his nominations list his home institution as being in Rome rather than in New York or Chicago.
  • The data for some nominees are incomplete. For example, no nomination information has been made public for 1957 laureates Chen Ning Yang and Tsung-Dao Lee because they are still alive. Nobel policy states that “material relating to the research work of a named person may not be released during that person’s lifetime.” Yang and Lee are shown in the graphic as receiving one nomination each.

Geographic diversity (or lack thereof)

The graphs below show how the geographic distribution of both the nominees and the people who nominated them changed from 1901 to 1970. They also depict an overall increase in annual nominations, particularly in the early 1960s. Note that the unit for the y-axis is number of nominations, so nominees who receive multiple nominations in a year or nominators who cast multiple ballots are given additional weight.

Geographic distribution of Nobel nominees and nominators

Use the radio buttons to toggle between charting the countries of the nominees and those of the nominators. Credit: Greg Stasiewicz for Physics Today

The countries are ordered from top to bottom by the number of cumulative nominee or nominator votes over the 70 years, led by the US (aqua) and Germany (green). Apart from the US and Russia/Soviet Union, the nine individual nations with the most nominations are in western Europe.

Physicists from France (orange), the UK (yellow), and especially Germany dominated the nomination pool early on. The US took over in the post–World War II period. Also note the rise in nominations for physicists in the Soviet Union (gray) in the mid 1950s.

The geographic distribution of the 1403 people who cast at least one Nobel nomination shows more balance but still an outsize influence from the US and western Europe. The lack of geographic diversity is particularly important because of nominators’ propensity to nominate their compatriots.

No prizes were awarded in 1940–43, during World War II. (The 1943 prize was awarded in 1944.) The absence of nominators from Germany around that time is due to Adolf Hitler’s order forbidding Germans from accepting Nobel Prizes. Physicists in Germany received only 17 nominations from 1938 to 1945, and many of the country’s physicists and other academics left the country during Hitler’s rule and headed for the US, the UK, and other destinations.

The road to Nobel recognition

The data reveal differing paths to glory for the laureates. Nils Dalén (1912) and Charles Barkla (1917) infamously received the prize despite each mustering a single lifetime nomination. Although nominees with widespread nominator support often receive the prize, the Nobel committee makes the final call, and anyone with even one nomination in a given year is eligible.

Nobel nomination timeline: Hans Bethe

Hans Bethe, Nobel nominations by year.
The number of Nobel Prize in Physics nominations for Hans Bethe by year. Bethe received the prize in 1967 (blue), when he received eight of his 56 total nominations through 1970. Credit: Greg Stasiewicz for Physics Today

Other laureates get their Nobel calls long after colleagues first recognize their accomplishments with a nomination. As shown in the graph above, Hans Bethe received 56 nominations over the course of a quarter century before the Nobel committee awarded him the prize in 1967. Similarly, Percy Bridgman didn’t receive the prize until 1946 despite getting his first nomination in 1919. And though Frederick Reines’s total nomination count will remain a mystery until at least 2045, we know that he received his first nomination in 1957, nearly four decades before he was awarded the prize in 1995. As other analyses have suggested, the average period between laureates’ first nomination and their receipt of the prize will almost certainly increase as more data become available.

Nobel nomination timeline: Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein, Nobel nominations by year.
The number of Nobel Prize in Physics nominations for Albert Einstein by year. The 1921 laureate received 66 nominations over his lifetime. Credit: Greg Stasiewicz for Physics Today

Albert Einstein’s path to the prize (above) helps illustrate the politics that interfered with his ultimately inevitable recognition. His first nomination came in 1910, five years after his annus mirabilis. His nomination count surged following the 1919 solar eclipse expedition that confirmed his general theory of relativity. As historians of science including Robert Marc Friedman have documented, Einstein’s candidacy was mired by the obstinacy of individual members of the Nobel committee, and he ended up receiving the 1921 Nobel Prize not for relativity but for the photoelectric effect. Einstein’s highest annual nomination count came the following year because the committee had deferred the 1921 award; the announcement of his prize didn’t come until 1922.

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