Where does talent come from? How easy is it to discover talent?created date: ; modified date: ; status: finished
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.
1901-1925 Nobel laureates in Physics
|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.
|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:
- 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
- No. He previously worked with The New Yorker, Converse, Columbia, NYU
- No. As Pioneer notes, he “is a graduate student studying Biocomputation and AI at Harvard and Georgia Tech.”
- No. He works as as Director of Hardware Engineering at a Bay Area startup; was awarded a $100k grant by NASA in 2015
- No. He studied at UT Austin and CMU; worked at Google, Apple
- No. She studies at Stanford; worked at Microsoft, NASA
- 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”
- 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”
- No. As Pioneer notes, “she won a Ugandan social innovation award during the Pioneer Tournament”
- No. As Pioneer notes, “He interned at Facebook on the GraphQL team, then at ZEIT where he worked on a lot of experimental tooling”
- Yes? Although he studies at the University of Waterloo
- No. He is a successful game developer
- 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.
- Out of 30 Nobel laureates in Physics between 1901 and 1925 only one laureate’s father did something manual for a living
- Johannes Diderik van der Waals’ father was a carpenter
- Out of 28 Nobel laureates in Physics between 2000 and 2009 only one laureate’s father did something manual for a living
- Carl Edwin Wieman’s father was a sawyer. Even in this case, this job was only for a number of years and Carl’s grandfather was a famous theologian at the University of Chicago
Here are possible conclusions you can take from this data:
- The problem is access: money and resources give vastly better access to education and opportunity
- The problem is ability: intelligence is largely inherited and smart parents will have smart children
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:
- My paternal grandparents were both PhDs in Chemistry and accomplished scientists: grandfather was a professor at Moscow State University and held many patents; grandmother worked in the Academy of Sciences, developing alloys for spacecrafts
- My dad holds a PhD in Math from Moscow State University
- My maternal grandparents were both born in small villages, hundreds of kilometers away from Moscow; grandmother was an electrician; grandfather was a construction worker
- My mom finished a no-name Moscow university with a degree in Statistics
- A second degree relative of mine (relatedness of 1⁄4) has schizophrenia
Appendix: Sam Walton, J. K. Rowling, and John D. Rockefeller
- His father worked as a banker, a farmer, a farm-loan appraiser, an agent for both insurance and real estate and then worked for his brother’s Walton Mortgage Company, which was an agent for Metropolitan Life Insurance
- i.e. their close relatives were affluent
- His mother started college and then dropped out to start a family. Sam Walton was born in 1918. This means that his mother started college no later than 1917. The earliest statistics I could find shows that in 1940, 3.8% of women completed four years of college or more. In 1910s-20s this figure was probably 1-2%. Walton’s mother would have been in this group, had she not met his father
J. K. Rowling
- Her father was a Rolls-Royce aircraft engineer
- Her mother was a a science technician
John D. Rockefeller
- His grandfather was a farmer and businessman
- His grandmother was a former schoolteacher (how many schoolteachers were around in early 19th century?)
- His father “loaned money to farmers at twelve percent, but tried to lend to farmers who could not pay so as to foreclose and take the farms” and also “was known to buy and sell horses”, which seems to require to have some money around
… 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).
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.