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Senior Vice-President for Research and Innovation, Professor of Theoretical Physics, Michigan State University

Monday, September 23, 2013

Nobel prizes by undergraduate institution

[ See this 2015 post for updated statistics, normalized to size of school population. ]

Commenter LY linked to this CollegeConfidential analysis in an earlier thread. I can't vouch for its accuracy but I find it quite interesting. Keep in mind this is a lagging indicator with relatively low statistics. Nevertheless a simple analysis of population-normalized (i.e., per individual) probability of great alumni accomplishment (e.g., as calculated below) would show very strong correlation with cognitive ability of student body over time. Must be a coincidence -- we all know those tests don't measure anything real  ;-)
Many throw around Nobel Prize affiliations as proof of quality of education. So I decided to compile a list of colleges and universities according to where Nobel Prize winners completed their undergraduate education.

First, the ground rules:

1. I only included winners of the prize for Chemistry, Economics, Literature, Medicine and Physics. I did not include winners of the Peace prize.

2. I decided to add Fields Medalists since their is no Prize for Mathematics and the Fields medal is extremely prestigious.

Most of the results were expected, although I was surprised at how few prize winners had graduated from several elite universities (especially Brown, Duke, Johns Hopkins, Michigan, Northwestern, Princeton and Stanford).

The conclusion, I think most will agree after seeing the numbers, is that one cannot rely on the production of Nobel Prize winners as an indicator of quality of undergraduate education because only 7 universities have produced more than 5!

The summarized list of universities according to the number of Nobel Prize winners (undergraduate degree only):

Harvard University: 21
Columbia University: 16
University of Chicago: 13
Massachusetts Institute of Technology: 11
University of California-Berkeley: 11
Yale University: 11
California Institute of Technology: 8
Cornell University: 5
Swarthmore College: 5
University of California-Los Angeles: 5
University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign: 5
University of Michigan-Ann Arbor: 5
Amherst College: 4
Carnegie Mellon University: 3
Case Western Reserve University: 3
Dartmouth College: 3
Princeton University: 3
University of Pennsylvania: 3
University of Rochester: 3
University of Washington: 3
University of Wisconsin-Madison 3
Brandeis University: 2
Haverford College: 2
Johns Hopkins University: 2
Oberlin College: 2
Purdue University-West Lafayette: 2
Rice University: 2
Rutgers University: 2
Stanford University: 2
University of Minnesota-Twin Cities: 2
Williams College: 2
Brown University: 1
College of the Holy Cross: 1
Georgia Institute of Technology: 1
Grinnell College: 1
Hamilton College: 1
Michigan state University: 1
New York University: 1
Northwestern University: 1
Ohio State University: 1
Further down the thread on CC, someone notes
... The most impressive is Cal Tech. 120 years old, fewer than 1000 undergraduates, and 8 prizes. My guess is that they have by far the highest Nobel / alumnus ratio.  
My graduating class was 186 kids! See also The Normaliens.

The secret that both Caltech and Ecole Normale understand is simple: sample as hard as possible from the right tail of the g and conscientiousness distribution (that's about all you can reliably measure; maybe throw in some maverick wacky personality or "I looove science!" for good measure), hire the best professors you can, and cross your fingers... Note this methodology optimizes the school's contributions to humanity, but sadly not its endowment. See Defining Merit.

If I had time I'd make a slight adjustment by removing Literature and Economics from the prize list (sorry!), and perhaps add the Turing Prize or something similar.


Jon Claerbout said...

Now why don't you try estimate the derivative, the finite difference, the change in the last 20 years?

oregonlocal said...

"I was surprised at how few prize winners had graduated from several elite universities"

Brown, Princeton, Stanford et al were pretty "sosh" i.e. catering to the ruling elite, back in my day so I'm not surprised, although uber-elite Yale has done well I see.

Go Bears! :-)

oregonlocal said...

The sample size is way too small.

Jon Claerbout said...

Then I suggest another list including only prizes given in the last 20-30 years. I'm nursing the hypothesis that on Steve's list the west is handicapped by its arrival being recent.

Diogenes said...

"sample as hard as possible from the right tail of the g and
conscientiousness distribution (that's about all you can reliably
measure; maybe throw in some maverick wacky personality or "I looove
science!" for good measure)"

dear God. i just threw up a little bit in my mouth.

wasn't Feynman of Surely You're Joking Mr Feynman a maverick? didn't he sleep with his students? didn't he visit strip clubs? didn't he play the bongos and have a weird obsession with some siberian oblast?

conscientiousness...non-shitty countries don't look at that. it bears repeating:


Diogenes said...

identifying with one's school is such bad taste. it's almost as bad as patriotism or pride in one's ethnicity. it's "sneetchery" (ala dr seuss). it's what paul fussel termed "legible clothing".

when someone wears his school's name (wears clothing with his school's name on it) that someone has ceased to be human just as much as someone who wears clothing with his team's name.

Diogenes said...

the giraffe eats the acacia and steve would give him a triumph. there is a drought and the acacia die and steve says, "thou wicked un-conscientious, stupid giraffe, thou conscientious and smart zebra."

Iamexpert said...

The secret that both Caltech and Ecole Normale understand is simple: sample as hard as possible from the right tail of the g and conscientiousness distribution (that's about all you can reliably measure

I think you can also reliably measure latent inhibition which probably predicts creativity (negatively) independently of g and conscientiousness:


StevenS123 said...

Creativity is one very important aspect that I think IQ tests just don't measure. I would say that you can find the whole spectrum of creativities throughout whole IQ scale, although the distributions might be different (it's possible that on average there are more people with high IQs that are creative). We've all seen it, people with very high IQs that are incredibly boring and can't have an original idea. Still, we choose to ignore this and equate intelligence with IQ.

Where the difference lies is probably that people with high IQs can follow up with their ideas.

David Backus said...

Kenneth Arrow, City University of New York. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kenneth_Arrow

Paul said...

I don't see school age as a relevant factor given that the Nobel itself is not that old. If anything, one should make allowances for Nobel-quality work (e.g., Gibbs) that preceded the existence of the prize, although obviously that exacerbates the time-lag issue mentioned above.

To me, the most remarkable aspects of Cal Tech are:

1. It's ability to draw top students given its relative (to HYPSM) lack of name recognition. No major sports teams and I can't recall too many films where characters attended Cal Tech (I wonder if the popularity of Big Bang Theory has led to an uptick in applications?).
2. The overall high quality of its students. Easily the lowest variance of any elite school (and by a wide margin).
3. The rigor of the curriculum, although this may be changing (I recall reading that now ~2/3 students graduate with a GPA > 3.5).

Iamexpert said...

No IQ test could possibly measure ALL of intelligence, so they aim to measure g, which is the trait all cognitive abilities have in common. Since non-g variance cancels itself out, presumably a hypothetical 100 hour test that measured every imaginable part of intelligence would correlate very highly with g, at least in the neurologically normal population. And creativity might not be entirely a part of intelligence but also depend much on personality traits (curiosity, passion, non-conformity, psychoticism etc)

5371 said...

A quick count gives Cambridge (Cambridgeshire) 35 (Oxford only 8!) and ENS (all rue d'Ulm) 15.

efalken said...

I wonder, given US college demographics, how many >150 IQ people are from those top schools relative to 'the rest.' There's a lot of tails with lots of smart hard working students at state schools. I imagine this ratio is a lot smaller than their proportion of Nobels. I suspect the connections made at such institution matter as much as conscientiousness and IQ. It's not just effort, luck, and ability...there's some positive-feedback coalition building that's a bit outside those dimensions.

Diogenes said...

"sample as hard as possible from the right tail of the g and
conscientiousness distribution (that's about all you can reliably

steve is an obedient moron.

i'm starting to understand those who claim asians aren't creative.

Diogenes said...

on what "conscientiousness" really means:


Diogenes said...

on the total meaninglessness of personality:


Diogenes said...

and recall that personality traits are heritable as iq when corrected for reliability???

steve is hoist by his own retard petard.

Cornelius said...

Adding the Turing Award would change this list dramatically. Stanford and Berkeley look much better on that list.

The list should include more prizes for literature and/or the humanities, though it's often hard to disentangle politics from those prizes.

Is there a nobel-esque prize for linguistics?

oregonlocal said...

Your nothing but a resentful, low-class, commie 'tard.

oregonlocal said...

Yes that is why engineers are the paradigm of achievement.

oregonlocal said...

"it's often hard to disentangle politics from those prizes."

Not in the least. The whole lot of them are cultural Marxists in one form or another.

oregonlocal said...

That should be true for the opposite as well. You whine about your sub-par alma mater. Your reverse snobbery should compel you to name it.

Diogenes said...

read a book spicoli. you're and your aren't interchangeable.

the point was not that there is no such thing as conscientiousness, but that in the context of education it means something other than what it means in other contexts.

you yourself have said as much.

and btw, father harvard, grandfather princeton and stonyhurst, direct descendant of governor bradford, etc.

Diogenes said...

you should look up "snob", spicoli.

Diogenes said...


i get it. that's why you're illiterate. you're lower class.

James Meredith Day said...

Oberlin has produced 3, not 2, winners of the Nobel Prize. You may find this link helpful, too: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Nobel_laureates_by_university_affiliation

R Franck said...

Rosalyn Yalow and Gertrude Elion graduated from Hunter College. So why is Hunter not on the list?

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