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Alfred Nobel. Painting by Swedish artist Emil Österman. Photo: Nobel Media

Nobel highlights male scientific achievements

This week, as every year, the Nobel Prize winners were announced. The winners in the categories physics, chemistry and medicine are, as in many years before, exclusively male.

Published: October 12, 2019, 10:53 am

    Overall, the prizewinners in the natural sciences since 1901 have been over 95 percent male.

    Last year Donna Strickland received the 2018 Nobel Prize in physics, only the third female physicist to get a Nobel, following Marie Curie in 1903 and Maria Goeppert-Mayer 60 years later.

    For the two science historians Nils Hansson and Thorsten Halling this is a major scandal. They see in the unequal distribution of gender a sign of a societal sexism.

    They also note that Alfred Nobel was asked to award the prize to the best in their field, regardless of nationality. How could it be that most of the winners came from the USA, followed by Europe and Asia? Probably only a quota model would help to change this. Neither of the two authors have cited significant achievements by African scientists however.

    But is the Nobel jury really sexist? It is unlikely since there are actually female researchers who have undoubtedly earned the Nobel Prize. Examples include Lise Meitner for the first nuclear fission, Rosalind Franklin for her work on DNA’s double helix structure, and Jocelyn Bell Burnell for the discovery of pulsars.

    But is sexism the only possible explanation? Franklin died in 1958 and could not receive the award posthumously.

    In 2017, Hansson himself named numerous physicians who were denied the highest distinction – but ironically his own listing is made up of only males since the cutting-edge research is predominantly male. A jury can not nominate anyone who has not taken the academic path.

    In addition, women are represented in the other categories of literature and peace. Moreover, which criteria can be used to decide which of the two literary Nobel laureates Olga Tokarczuk and Peter Handke has greater literary talent?

    Of course, talent in physics is crucial, but not only that. If a brilliant physicist is denied the opportunity to work on experiments with expensive equipment, the lack of corresponding measurement data, will yield no success.

    But in mathematics such considerations do not matter. Even without millions in funding, groundbreaking discoveries can only be achieved with the power of the mind. And indeed, gender relations in both disciplines are not fundamentally different.

    Scientific talent is certainly not distributed equally. In 1900, the famous German mathematician David Hilbert formulated the 24 biggest problems of mathematics. In his honor, in the year 2000, several more unresolved puzzles were introduced, the so-called Millenium Problems.

    In both cases it was not possible to tell in advance whether the decisive proof would be provided by a man or a woman, quite apart from the fact that several of these solutions are still pending. So far, almost all problems have been solved by one man. There is therefore reason to believe that scientific talent is not evenly distributed among the sexes.

    In fact, it turns out that men in the high IQ range are far more represented than women. From a value of 130 (the threshold for giftedness), the ratio is 2:1 – and it continues to increase with higher intelligence.

    Of course, it could be assumed that the IQ test generally discriminates against women, but it does not generally certify men to have higher intelligence. On average, the sexes are not different, but men are more often in the extremes represented. There are more geniuses… and idiots among men than women.

    That is because a sex-chromosomally bound inheritance of intelligence is possible, which is stronger in men than in women – in both positive and negative sense.

    Several other characteristics also show that men are more variable than women, ie more likely to be among the winners and losers, while women are relatively stable in midfield.

    Nature attaches a higher selection pressure to the male sex, because men are expendable. If 50 percent of all females die, the number of offspring would also fall by 50 percent. However, if the number of males falls by 50 percent, every single remaining male has twice the reproductive success and the population remains stable.

    By making men more vulnerable, but allowing them greater reproductive success, nature finds the balance of quality and quantity to accelerate evolution. But biological facts and ideological thinking are rarely reconcilable.

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