Fermi’s Martians

Enrico Fermi (1901 – 1954), the Italian-American physicist, Nobel laureate, etc etc, asked the famous question “Where are they?” That question became known as the Fermi paradox. The universe should be teeming with life. But the striking lack of any evidence of extraterrestrials is puzzling. Where are they?

Leo Szilard (1898 – 1964), was a Hungarian-American physicist who came up with the idea of a nuclear chain reaction, and together with Fermi patented in 1933 the idea of a nuclear reactor. He gave a plausible answer to Fermi’s question. “They are among us,” he said, “but they call themselves Hungarians.” Plausible because Hungarians are weirdly super-intelligent. In fact, they have been suspected of being Martians.

“The Martians” was the name of a group of prominent scientists (mostly, but not exclusively physicists and mathematicians) who emigrated from Hungary to the United States in the early half of the 20th century. They included, among others, Theodore von Kármán, John von Neumann, Paul Halmos, Eugene Wigner, Edward Teller, George Pólya, and Paul Erdős. They received the name from a fellow Martian Leó Szilárd, who jokingly suggested that Hungary was a front for aliens from Mars.

This is an example of a general phenomenon: some groups lie at the extremes of the normal distribution of human characteristics. Some are over-represented in, say, the list of Nobel prize winners; some in the mystical traditions; some in engineering and technology; some in producing ideological warriors.

There seems to be some kind of endogenous comparative advantage dynamics at play. Once a few people within the group become good at something, there are spill-over effects to the rest of the group.

I find it astonishing that Jews make up only 0.2 percent of the world population and yet account for 22 percent of the world’s Nobel laureates between 1901 and 2015.

Chemistry (36 prize winners, 21% of world total, 31% of US total)
Economics (29 prize winners, 38% of world total, 49% of US total)
Literature (14 prize winners, 13% of world total, 27% of US total)
Peace (9 prize winners, 9% of world total, 10% of US total)4
Physics (51 prize winners, 26% of world total, 36% of US total)
Physiology or Medicine (55 prize winners, 26% of world total, 39% of US total)

The Jews must be from the Andromeda galaxy. And the Muslims are definitely not from the same galaxy. Though Muslims account for approximately 20 percent of the world’s population, they have among the whole lot only 12 Nobel prizes, or 0.2 percent of the prizes ever awarded: 8 in Peace, 2 in literature, 2 in Chemistry. One Nobel in Physics was awarded to Abdus Salam but Pakistan declared him non-Muslim (he was an Ahmadiyya) through a 1974 constitutional amendment.

To reiterate, Jews are 0.2 percent of the world population with 22 percent of the prizes; Muslims are 20 percent of the world population with 0.2 percent of the prizes. No wonder the Jews are the most hated group in the Islamic world.

Another outlier in this distribution are the Americans. They have won 357 of the 573 Nobel prizes ever awarded, or 62 percent.

While we’re at it, I should note that India does really poorly in the Nobel prize count: only 11 were awarded to people with an Indian connection — either born in India or became Indian residents. With approximately 17 percent of the world population, that is only 0.2 percent of the prizes. Shoddy showing but understandable given the fact that Indians are a subjugated people with a miserable education system. The relationship between academic achievement and freedom is robust.

In passing I should mention that MK Gandhi did not get a Nobel Peace prize, although given that the peace prize is a ridiculous joke, he should have got one like the other anti-humanitarians who got it.

Author: Atanu Dey


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