Nobel Rivalry

By Catherine Bigelow

Illustration by Kristian Hammerstad.

While Stanford and Cal are no strangers to the Nobel Prize, this year was exceptional, with each earning two. These accomplishments reflect a Bay Area at the center of innovation — and some healthy competition.

Back in October, these private-versus-public-school competitors weren’t battling it out on the gridiron. Instead, wins were scored in campus research labs — and a whopping four Nobel Prizes were awarded to scientists and professors at Stanford University and UC Berkeley. The final score was tied: 2-2.

But let the record show that Cal currently boasts a total of 110 affiliated Nobel Prize winners versus 32 for Stanford.

At UC Berkeley, biochemist Jennifer Doudna shared the Nobel Prize in chemistry for the co-development of CRISPR-Cas9, a genome-editing technology that enables scientists to rewrite DNA — the very code of existence. UC Berkeley professor emeritus Reinhard Genzel shared the Nobel Prize in physics for his research that revealed our Milky Way galaxy is governed by a supermassive blackhole.

Down on the farm, two Stanford University economists, Paul Milgrom and Robert Wilson, shared the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel for their research improving auction theory and inventing new auction formats.

Let’s be honest, who among us possesses even a modicum of cocktail conversation comprehension about what these discoveries mean?

As moving vans clog the streets for an exodus of residents emptying their homes in a region still grappling with a shape-shifting global health pandemic, the sedulous university research of these intellectual titans is still hard at work, unraveling the mysteries of our universe, economic systems — and even our DNA.

Doudna, founder and director of Berkeley’s Innovative Genomics Institute, is the first female UC Berkeley faculty member to win a Nobel. She and her co-honoree, Emmanuelle Charpentier, are also the first all-female team to win the Nobel Prize in chemistry — and they represent a massive win of STEM studies for young female students.

In an interview with Axios on HBO, Doudna noted that, amid the recent presidential election, “Science is on the ballot.”

“I’ve seen an increasing distrust of science and scientists, to the point where I think now we’re seeing kind of an extreme case where we have a president who is telling his followers that … his opponent will … listen to scientists,” she said. “As though that is a terrible thing.”

Astronomer Reinhard Genzel, a native of Germany, represents a trend among Nobel Prize winners who have emigrated to the United States. According to the National Foundation for American Policy, since 1901, immigrants have been awarded 106 of 307 Nobel Prizes won by Americans in the fields of chemistry, medicine and physics.

For Milgrom and Wilson, their auction research extends far beyond eBay. According to the Nobel Committee, they established a global framework of “common value” — whether it’s a government auction of radio bandwidth to the telecommunications industry or bidding on such commodities as oil.

While big-picture head-scratchers still remain for the casual reader of Nobel news, the Twittersphere exploded with everyman fandom when the Nobel Committee was unable to reach Milgrom and inform him of his prize.

Finally at 3 a.m., Wilson, his co-prize winner and neighbor, trudged to Milgrom’s Stanford campus house and repeatedly knocked on the door to share the thrilling news — all of which was caught on Milgrom’s Nest camera.

“Wow,” said Milgrom, through his closed door as Wilson’s wife, Mary, advised him to answer his cellphone. “Yeah, OK.”

This month, beginning December 5 in Stockholm, the Nobel Committee hosts a weeklong tribute to its laureates.

However, unlike the Big Game —the stuff of legend rife with chicanery, trophy kidnappings, on-field Stanford Marching Band mishaps and even smackdowns between university mascots Oski the Bear and the Stanford Tree —  we can be assured that when these world-renowned and well-behaved research scientists, bearers of great acclaim for Cal and Stanford, accept their prizes, no Stanford Band trombonists will be mowed down at the podium.


Nobel Prizes

Cal: 110; Stanford: 32

Nobel Prize Purse

$1.1 million for each category; shared by co-winners.

This year’s winners

Nobel Prizes in chemistry, economic sciences and physics were awarded to four scientists at UC Berkeley and Stanford.

Clockwise: Jennifer Doudna, Robert Wilson, Paul Milgrom and Reinhard Genzel. (Kristian Hammerstad)

Economics Sciences Nobel Prize Winners Robert Wilson Has Mentored

Paul Milgrom (2020), Professor Bengt Holmström (2016), Stanford economics professor Alvin Roth (2012).

2020 Female Nobel Prize Winners

Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, the first female co-prize-winners, chemistry.

Andrea Ghez, only the fourth woman in history to win the Nobel Prize in physics (shared with Berkeley’s Genzel and Oxford University’s Roger Penrose).

Tu Youyou, Nobel Prize in physiology (first female winner from the People’s Republic of China).

Louise Glück, Nobel Prize in literature (and a visiting Stanford professor).

Famous Dead Nobel Prize Winners

Cal: Ernest Lawrence (physics; the university’s first laureate and father of Lawrence Livermore Lab); Glenn Seaborg (chemistry); Czeslaw Milosz (literature).

Stanford: Linus Pauling (Nobel Peace Prize; chemistry. Note: Cal claims him, too. But Pauling taught at Stanford); Milton Friedman (economic sciences).

Living Nobel Laureate Faculty Members

Cal: 10; Stanford: 19

Big Game Wins/Ties

Cal: 47; Ties: 11; Stanford: 64

Stanford Band Losses

In 1982, believing they’d won the Big Game, the Stanford Marching Band stormed the field. But although the clock had expired, the play was still alive when Cal’s Kevin Moen toppled Stanford trombonist Gary Tyrrell while racing into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.

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