Physics Without Frontiers…

Young international physicists holding out their passports - most of them from different nations.It’s Nobel Prize Season Again!

In the run-up to the 2015 physics Nobel prize, which was awarded on Tuesday 6 October, Physics World looked at how Nobel-prize-winning physicists have been moving around the globe over the past century.

Physicists may change country for a variety of reasons.  While Einstein and Penzias fled persecution and possible death, other physicists, such as Marie Curie or Abdus Salam, moved to improve their career prospects.


The Long Journey Home

When Enrico Fermi travelled to Stockholm in 1938, to be presented with that year’s Nobel Prize for Physics for his insights into the atomic nucleus, he was not returning to his native Italy.  Instead, Fermi embarked along with his wife and young children on a voyage to the United States.  He went on to make major contributions to Physics in that country – playing a crucial role in developing nuclear weapons and nuclear energy.

Enrico and Laura Fermi with their young family arriving in America - the boy and girl pictured sitting on a railing between their smiling parents.
Laura and Enrico Fermi with their two young children Giulio and Nella in 1938 Source:

Enrico Fermi is only one of many Nobel laureates who became immigrants, by which I mean he settled permanently in a country different to that in which he was born.  At the time, he made the move because his wife Laura was Jewish and Italy had just passed racial laws that restricted the civil rights of Jews.  Another Nobel-prize-winning physicist to flee fascism was Albert Einstein, who moved to the U.S. in 1933 after Germany passed similar laws.

It was not only established physicists who got caught up in this ‘migration’.  Indeed Arno Penzias, who shared the 1978 prize for discovering the cosmic microwave background, was part of the Kindertransport that rescued thousands of Jewish children from Europe in 1938-1940.  Penzias and his brother were taken from Germany to Britain, where they were reunited with their parents and eventually settled in the U.S.

We are left to wonder whether physics in post-war Europe would have been much richer if these and other talented scientists had not been forced to leave.


The “Foreign” Student

Nobel Physics Laureates Migration Map over the Last Century: 198 Winners of the Nobel Prize for Physics $ ($1901-2014$ )$; 51 Laureates who live or have died in countries different from those where they were born; We define an immigrant as someone who lives or died in a country other than that of their birth. While this definition captures patterns of migration, it is not perfect. For example, UK-born Paul Dirac dis his Nobel-prize-winning work at the University of Cambridge but then moved to the US and so is counted as an immigrant. China-born Chen-Ning Yang, who did his prize-winning work in the US but has since returned to China, is not counted as an immigrant. Research: Hamish Johnston / Design: Paul Matson
Nobel Physics Laureates Migration Map in Europe Source: Physics World

Physics World infographics illustrates the patterns of migration.

The story begins with Marie Curie herself, who emigrated from Poland to France in her mid-20s, arriving as a “foreign student” in today’s parlance.  Despite her stunning scientific achievements in France – indeed she remains the only person to win Nobel prizes in both Physics (1903) and Chemistry (1911), Marie Curie was vilified by parts of French society for being a foreigner, but she resisted persistent calls to return to Poland and became one of the most famous French scientists of all times.

The story ends, at least for now, with Shuji Nakamura, who shared last year’s prize for his development of blue light-emitting diodes.  He left his native Japan in 1999, after doing his prize-winning research to join the University of California, Santa Barbara.


Who are the Winners?

Which countries have been the biggest winners when it comes to attracting top physicists?  And which countries have lost the most talent?  And why?

A planisphere showing the western-bound migration of Nobel Physics Laureates.
Nobel Physics Laureates Migration Map Worldwide Source: Physics World

This infographic (opposite) paints a geographical picture of migration, with the thickness of the arrowed lines indicating the numbers of laureates who migrated from one country to another.

The most glaring fact is that the United States of America is the clear winner when it comes to inward migration.  The country has attracted 30 of these top physicists and only lost a couple of them. 

Another striking observation is the brain drain from Germany, which has lost 13 physicists – 11 of whom went to the US. While the rise of Nazism in Germany accounts for much of this migration, it is interesting to note that the last three Germans to go to the US – Horst Störmer, Herbert Kroemer and Wolfgang Ketterle – arrived long after the Second World War.

Nowadays, people tend to move around a lot more, especially in science, and physicists do not always settle in the one place.


And the Winner of the Nobel Prize of Physics 2015?

Takaaki Kajita $ ($top picture$ )$ and Arthur McDonald $ ($bottom picture$ )$
Takaaki Kajita and Arthur McDonald, Nobel Prize for Physics 2015

This year’s Nobel has been awarded to Arthur McDonald and Takaaki Kajita “for the discovery of neutrino oscillations, which shows that neutrinos have mass”.

It had to be an immigrant.  In fact, this year’s Physics World Nobel-prize infographics showed that of the 198 people who have won the prize, 51 are immigrants.