Comment: Infographic Physics World  November 2015

Nobel physics laureate migration

The movement of talented researchers across international borders has been the lifeblood of physics for more than a century. In these infographics, Hamish Johnston delves into the archives to discover which countries have gained the most physics Nobel laureates, and which have suffered the worst brain drains

(Paul Matson / IOP Publishing)

Walk into any university physics department and there is a high chance that you will come across a physicist who has moved there from another country. Indeed, some of the most famous physicists of the modern era are migrants – Marie Curie and Albert Einstein to name just two. To track this migration of minds, we have created a set of infographics to show how physics Nobel laureates have moved around the globe. Out of 200 people who have won the prize, 51 are immigrants by our admittedly crude definition: someone who died or currently lives in a country other than that of their birth.

(Paul Matson / IOP Publishing)

The above infographic paints a geographical picture of migration, with the thickness of the arrowed lines showing the numbers of laureates who have migrated from one country to another. Movement within Europe is shown in the smaller map (left). When it comes to net migration, the US is the clear winner, attracting 30 of these top physicists and losing only two. Germany has suffered most from a brain drain, losing 13 physicists – 11 of whom went to the US. While the rise of Nazism in Germany accounts for much of this loss, the last three Germans to go to the US – Horst Störmer, Herbert Kroemer and Wolfgang Ketterle – arrived long after the Second World War.

The names of the immigrant laureates are shown below in an infographic that highlights the receiving nations. Second place after the US in terms of influx is France, which has attracted talent from French-speaking nations. The UK is also a net winner, gaining laureates from its former colonies as well as Eastern Europe – including USSR-born Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, who bagged the 2010 prize for isolating graphene.

When compiling the data for these infographics, we sometimes wrestled over whom to include as an immigrant. For example, the 2009 laureate Willard Boyle was born in Canada, did his prize-winning research in the US but then returned to Canada, where he enjoyed 31 years of retirement before his death in 2011. As a result, we did not count Boyle as a migrant, although some might argue that he was an immigrant when he did his Nobel-winning work.

Shifting borders also complicated matters, especially in Europe, where some places changed countries three or four times during the 20th century. One of the trickiest calls was the 1966 laureate Alfred Kastler, who was born in Alsace in 1902 when it was part of Germany. In 1918 Alsace was returned to France, where Kastler pursued his career and died in 1984. Despite his Germanic surname and apparent penchant for writing poetry in German, we did not include him as an immigrant.

(Paul Matson / IOP Publishing)