Bad news, patriots. The United States, that used to win the lion’s share of Nobel Prizes, is once again revealed to be in tragic decline. Out of nine Nobel winners for 2015, only one is a true blue, homemade, born and bred American, Chemistry laureate Paul Modrich.
For purposes of this discussion we’ve got to exempt Peace and Literature Prizes from the calculation. Peace winners tend to be people fighting toxic bellicosity from within, such as this year’s winners, the so-called Tunisian Quartet of civilizing institutions that banded together to keep their country from falling into the anarchy of its neighbors.
Writers are almost by definition homebodies who take their own little piece of turf as their inspiration — Twain’s Mississippi River, Hardy’s Dorset, and the Belarus of this year’s winner Svetlana Alexievich. If movie and TV writers were only eligible, we’d win every year.
But in all the other categories, the USA could only manage one winner among nine recognized for the prizes in economics, chemistry, physics and medicine. We’re finished. Or are we?
Look a little deeper and it turns out the economics laureate, Angus Denton, born a Scot and educated at Cambridge, has been at Princeton for 32 years where he holds the Dwight D. Eisenhower professorship and holds dual British and American citizenship.
Tu Youyou, a winner for medicine, we give a pass since she is Chinese and began her Nobel work during the Vietnam War at the command of Mao Tse-tung. He probably wouldn’t have been inclined to let her become an American even if she’d asked for the chance. Indeed, it might well have been her last request.
She shared the prize with Satoshi Omura of Japan who was educated there and is a professor emeritus at a Tokyo University. But even he is a part-time adornment of the United States. He was mentored by Max Tishler who synthesized riboflavin and cortisone as a Merck scientist and taught at Wesleyan after retirement. Omura holds a chair at that school named for Tishler.
The third medicine winner is William Campbell. He’s Irish, but after graduating from Dublin’s Trinity he earned his Ph.D. at Wisconsin-Madison and became a U.S. Citizen in 1962. He lives in Massachusetts. Some Republicans feel that’s not really America, but we’ll give him a pass.
Physics Prize winner Arthur McDonald is a Canadian whose Ph.D. Is from Caltech. He has taught most of his career in Canada, but did spend seven years as a Princeton professor. He shares the Physics award with Takaaki Kajita who was born, educated and has spent his entire career in Japan. Poor guy doesn’t know what he missed.
Finally, in Chemistry in addition to the aforementioned American-Born Modrich, the winners were Tomas Lindahl of Sweden and Aziz Sancar of Turkey. Sancar received his Ph.D. At the University of Texas — Dallas, and after a research stint at Yale, has been at UNC-Chapel Hill for 33 years. He holds dual Turkish-U.S. citizenship. Lindahl did post-doctoral work at Princeton and Rockefeller University but has spent the bulk of his career in Britain where he holds dual citizenship with Sweden. How did he get away?
Still, out of eight Nobelists, setting aside a cloistered Chinese scientist and the Peace and Literature winners, one is American by birth, four by adoption, two studied here, one taught here and one has no American connection. The fool.
Of course, part of this speaks to the fact that science is to our age what the Catholic Church was to the Middle Ages. It was in a sense a supranational institution with its own monastic infrastructure and language, Latin. Science today is a global transnational endeavor that leaps borders and its language is English.
But there’s another reason America turns up on so many scientific curricula vitae. Sancar the Turkish-American winner has said he came to this country in the same year as John Lennon and has never forgotten how the Beatle explained his motive. Lennon said if he’d lived at the time of the Roman Empire, he’d have headed for Rome where everything was happening. So he had chosen to live in America, the center of things.
Immigrants still come here for the same reason. Not all win Nobel Prizes, but you never know which might make a huge contribution to the country when he shows up at the border. Opposing immigration is absurd in a country where everyone except Native-Americans began elsewhere.
Consider the case of Friedrick Drumpf, a German draft-dodging barber who came here illegally, moved on to the Yukon and made the beginnings of his fortune by running a Gold Rush hotel/restaurant that also sold liquor, and offered gambling and the services of prostitutes.
Not exactly the sort of guy you’d want coming into his country, but the good news is his grandson Donald Trump has seen the light. He aims to keep riffraff like his ancestor out. Hopefully he will let the Nobel-caliber scientists in. If his border guards can tell the one from the other.