Nobels and national greatness

A more contemporary answer is the pervasive mediocrity of higher education throughout the EU. Cambridge and Oxford aside, the Shanghai Jiao Tong rankings list only one European university—the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich—in its top 30, and Switzerland isn’t even a member of the EU. Most European universities, overcrowded and underfunded, can’t hope to compete with their American peers.

Which brings us to the Nobel superpower. Since 2000, Americans have won 21 of the 37 physics prizes, 18 of the 33 medicine prizes, 22 of the 33 chemistry prizes and an astonishing 27 of the 30 economics prizes. Pretty impressive considering our nonstop anxiety about failing schools, mediocre international test scores, undergrads not majoring in math or the sciences, and the rest. Singapore, South Korea and Finland may regularly produce the highest test scores among 15-year-olds, but something isn’t translating: Nobody from Singapore has ever won a Nobel. Korea has one—for peace. The Finns last took a science prize in 1967.

The secret of America’s Nobel sauce isn’t hard to understand: an immigration culture that welcomed everyone from Ronald Coase (from the U.K.) to Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (from India) to Martin Kaplus (from Nazi-era Austria) to Elizabeth Blackburn (from Australia). A mostly private, highly competitive, lavishly endowed university system, juiced by federal funding for fundamental research. A culture of individualism and an ingrained respect for against-the-grain thinking.