Where does talent come from? How easy is it to discover talent?

  1. Where does talent come from? Trying to answer this question, I looked at the backgrounds of all Nobel laureates in Physics in years 1901-1925 and 2000-2009.

  2. How easy is it to discover talent? Trying to answer this question, I looked at the winners of the first Pioneer tournament. Pioneer is a “home for the ambitious outsiders of the world”.

1901-1925 Nobel laureates in Physics

Year Person Father Mother
1901 Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen a merchant in, and manufacturer of, cloth a member of an old Lennep family (note: absence of a link means that source is the same)
1902 Hendrik Lorentz a nursery-owner
1902 Pieter Zeeman a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church
1903 Antoine Henri Becquerel a physicist; note: Antoine’s grandfather and his son were also physicists
1903 Pierre Curie a doctor
1903 Maria Skłodowska-Curie a well-known teacher a well-known teacher
1904 Lord Rayleigh a Baron the daughter of a Royal Engineer
1905 Philipp Lenard a wine business owner
1906 J. J. Thomson a book shop owner mother’s family owned a cotton spinning company
1907 Albert Abraham Michelson a retailer who supplied gold-miners in California the daughter of a physician
1908 Gabriel Lippmann managed the family glove-making business
1909 Guglielmo Marconi an Italian aristocrat granddaughter of the founder of whiskey distillers Jameson & Sons
1909 Karl Ferdinand Braun either an actuary or a public official
1910 Johannes Diderik van der Waals a carpenter
1911 Wilhelm Wien a landowner
1912 Nils Gustaf Dalén farm owner
1913 Heike Kamerlingh-Onnes a brickworks owner mother’s father was an architect
1914 Max von Laue a German military official, who was raised to hereditary nobility
1915 William Henry Bragg a merchant marine officer and farmer a clergyman’s daughter
1915 Lawrence Bragg won Nobel in Physics
1917 Charles Glover Barkla a secretary for the Atlas Chemical Company daughter of a watchmaker
1918 Max Planck a law professor (his paternal great-grandfather and grandfather were both theology professors)
1919 Johannes Stark a landed proprietor
1920 Charles Édouard Guillaume owned a watchmaking business
1921 Albert Einstein an engineer who, with his brother, started an electrical equipment company her father made a fortune trading in corn
1922 Niels Bohr a professor of physiology member of a wealthy Danish Jewish family prominent in banking and parliamentary circles
1923 Robert Andrews Millikan a Congregational minister graduated Oberlin College in 1857 and was the dean of Olivet College
1924 Manne Siegbahn a stationmaster of the State Railways; note: Manne’s son won the 1981 Nobel in Physics
1925 James Franck a banker came from a family of rabbis
1925 Gustav Hertz a lawyer; note: Gustav’s uncle was a famous physicist

2000-2009 Nobel laureates in Physics

Do remember that most parents of 2000-2009 laureates were born in early and mid-20th century, when being a high school teacher or a civil servant were completely different professions from today, in terms of prestige.

Year Person Father Mother
2000 Zhores Alferov an officer and factory director headed a public organization of housewives and worked as a librarian
2000 Herbert Kroemer a civil servant
2000 Jack Kilby an executive with the Kansas Power Company
2001 Eric Allin Cornell a professor of civil engineering at MIT got her graduate degree from Stanford and taught high school English
2001 Carl Edwin Wieman graduated from college, worked in the lumber industry; note: Carl’s grandfather was a famous theologian at the University of Chicago graduated from college and came from a well-educated family
2001 Wolfgang Ketterle director of an oil and coal distribution company (having started there as an apprentice) managed a small business distributing first-aid products
2002 Raymond Davis Jr. chief of the Photographic Technology Section at the National Bureau of Standards
2002 Masatoshi Koshiba a professional Imperial army officer
2002 Riccardo Giacconi owned a small business a teacher of Mathematics and Physics at the high school level and the co-author of many textbooks on geometry
2003 Alexei Alexeyevich Abrikosov a pathologist born into a wealthy family of factory owners a physician
2003 Vitaly Lazarevich Ginzburg an engineer who had a number of patents a doctor
2003 Anthony James Leggett a teacher of physics, chemistry and mathematics in a high school a teacher of mathematics in a high school
2004 David J. Gross a social scientist, Federal bureaucrat, advisor to Israel’s government graduated from Barnard, while her brother graduated from Harvard Law School
2004 Hugh David Politzer a doctor a doctor
2004 Frank Wilczek an electrical engineer (see Candid Science VI: More Conversations with Famous Scientists, p. 866)
2005 Roy J. Glauber a salesman elementary school teacher / housewife
2005 John L. Hall an electrical engineer an elementary school teacher and singer
2005 Theodor W. Hänsch a businessman engaged in the export of farming machinery
2006 John C. Mather a statistician a high school teacher
2006 George Smoot a businessman and engineer; note: both George’s grandfathers were judges an elementary school teacher
2007 Albert Fert a physicist a high school teacher
2007 Peter Grünberg an engineer
2008 Makoto Kobayashi a physician, the director of the central public health centre in Nagoya note: Makoto’s maternal cousin was Japan’s Prime Minister
2008 Toshihide Maskawa a sugar merchant a sugar merchant
2008 Yoichiro Nambu a high school teacher
2009 Charles K. Kao a lawyer; note: Charles' grandfather was famous scholar, poet, literator, and artist a poet
2009 Willard S. Boyle a physician
2009 George E. Smith an insurance underwriter


Suppose you wanted to find undiscovered talent today. How easy would that be? Pioneer.app suggests an answer. Pioneer is a “home for the ambitious outsiders of the world” and its home page says:

Geniuses come from untraditional backgrounds. Albert Einstein was a patent clerk in Bern. Oprah Winfrey grew up in rural poverty, wearing potato sacks as clothing. Marie Curie was a starving student in Paris, rationing herself on bread and water before discovering radioactivity. The differentiator of the Ivy League isn’t curriculum. It’s brand and network. Pioneer aims to scale those elements. Our goal is to build a decentralized network of young, creative and exceptionally motivated outsiders who don’t fit in to the traditional system.

I looked at 17 winners of the first Pioneer Tournament and tried to determine whether Pioneer discovered them.

Here are the results:

  1. No. Two weeks before he was selected as a Pioneer, he published a Hacker Noon post titled How Indie Making and Product Hunt changed my life
  2. Yes.
  3. No. He previously worked with The New Yorker, Converse, Columbia, NYU
  4. Yes.
  5. No. As Pioneer notes, he “is a graduate student studying Biocomputation and AI at Harvard and Georgia Tech.”
  6. No. He works as as Director of Hardware Engineering at a Bay Area startup; was awarded a $100k grant by NASA in 2015
  7. No. He studied at UT Austin and CMU; worked at Google, Apple
  8. Yes.
  9. No. She studies at Stanford; worked at Microsoft, NASA
  10. No. As Pioneer notes, “his work … has already been recognized by Intel, Maker Faire, Conrad Foundation, the US Army, and New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy”
  11. No. As Pioneer notes, “She graduated from Brown last year, where she was a CS teaching assistant, and founded Lean In at Brown University. She interned at Microsoft and currently works at Apple”
  12. No. As Pioneer notes, “she won a Ugandan social innovation award during the Pioneer Tournament”
  13. No. As Pioneer notes, “He interned at Facebook on the GraphQL team, then at ZEIT where he worked on a lot of experimental tooling”
  14. Yes.
  15. Yes? Although he studies at the University of Waterloo
  16. No. He is a successful game developer
  17. No. As Pioneer notes, “Her earlier project, an ADHD diagnosis tool, won the Disrupt NY 2017 Hackathon Grand Prize”


Where does talent come from?

I hope to have gone though enough laureates to alleviate any concerns about cherry-picking.

Here are possible conclusions you can take from this data:

I’m glad to have confirmed whichever of these you believed prior to reading this post.

How easy is it to discover talent?

Out of 17 winners of the first Pioneer Tournament, there are only 5 undiscovered/outsiders. This suggests that discovering new talent is not an easy task: even though Pioneer is explicitly pitching to outsiders, more than 70% of its winners are insiders.

Pioneer started only a few months ago, which means that it would be wrong to make any definitive conclusions out of these numbers. However, if Pioneer believes that there is a lot of undiscovered talent around the world, it could, for example, ban students from the top US universities and accomplished professionals from participating in the future tournaments.

At the moment, the set of Pioneers “who don’t fit in to the traditional system” (Pioneer’s wording) and the set of people from the top US universities seem to overlap substantially.

Appendix: my ancestry

I don’t claim to be a genius but I’m always curious about other people’s relatives and my own family tree is rather interesting:

Appendix: Sam Walton, J. K. Rowling, and John D. Rockefeller

Sam Walton

J. K. Rowling

John D. Rockefeller

Further reading

When winning a Nobel Prize seems to run in the family:

… there are at least seven parent–child pairs of Nobel laureates.

Four of these were in physics: the Thomsons (J. J. in 1906 and George in 1937), Braggs (William and Lawrence together in 1915), Bohrs (Niels in 1922 and his son Aage in 1975) and Siegbahns (Manne in 1924 and his son Kai in 1981). Marie Curie and her daughter Irène Joliot-Curie both won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1911 and 1935), after Marie and her husband, Pierre, had won the physics Nobel in 1903.

The Kornbergs branched out more (Arthur, physiology or medicine, 1959; Roger, chemistry, 2006), as did Hans von Euler-Chelpin (chemistry, 1929) and his son Ulf von Euler (physiology or medicine, 1970).

Compound Interest Is The Least Powerful Force In The Universe:

The descendants of rich people tend to stay rich even three hundred years later. For example, Gregory Clark looked at social mobility in Sweden. A famously mobile society, Sweden is also a good place to study social mobility since nobles and commoners had different last names back when the feudal system was in place around 1700. Non-nobles are forbidden to change to noble-sounding surnames even today, so names should be a fossil record of who’s descended from the really rich people.

Clark found that among highly-educated well-paying professions like doctors and lawyers, people with aristocratic surnames are represented around four to six times the level expected by chance. He uses this to describe a statistic “b” signifying the rate of regression to the mean with each generation.

Bernoulli family (a)

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