‘Genius’ denotes a certain inexplicable originality in human thought and action—not necessarily reciting Pi to 60,000 decimal places or penning a best-selling book trilogy, but charting an ostensibly new paradigm within which future generations will work. Measures like public test scores, literacy and IQ might showcase overall academic fitness, but when we speak of something as undefined as human creative potential, sweeping statistical indicators don’t do it justice. As the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote, genius isn’t about hitting targets others fail to hit; it’s about hitting ones they fail to see. So how exactly do we chart this on a national scale?
Perhaps the most universal indicator we have is the one established by Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel in 1901. Every year a series of European committees award the Nobel Prize for the most groundbreaking advancements in international physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, economics and peace worldwide. Only 876 individuals have ever received the coveted gold medal, diploma, cash reward (about $1.2 million in 2012) and above all, the honour of being dubbed a “Nobel laureate” on the world stage.
If we portray ingenuity as a rate—i.e. Nobel laureates per 10 million citizens—the sovereign Caribbean island Saint Lucia, with only 182,000 people and 2 laureates, would place the highest. But this tells us little about a country’s creative contributions to human thought. The lump sum of Nobel laureates a nation can boast, on the other hand, presents a pretty solid picture of intellectual influence in the world. Of course, higher populations naturally have more contenders for the award but while a large citizenry might supply more brilliant minds and more potential to the world stage, without their country’s support they’d struggle to materialize their talents into world-changing ideas. National measures of ingenuity need to consider the collaborative efforts between national institutions that nurture the talent, and the brilliant minds that make it all possible.
That’s why we’ve made this list of top ten countries most deserving of a national Nobel Prize, based on their scale of contribution to humankind’s legacy over the last century.
10. Italy: 20 Nobel laureates
Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli and arguably the biggest genius of all time, Leonardo da Vinci, were about 400 years too early to bring their country Nobel fame. But Italy still made waves with household names like Guglielmo Marconi and Enrico Fermi—the former (oft-credited inventor of the radio) won the Nobel Prize in physics for his contributions to wireless telegraphy; the latter, one of the “fathers” of the atomic bomb, for his work in induced radioactivity. Today Fermi has his own prestigious award, and a periodic table element (fermium, atomic number 100), named after him.
9. Austria: 21 Nobel laureates
While 9th in quantity, Austria actually has the 7th highest Nobel laureates per capita in the world – the third best rate of any country on this top 10 list. That’s thanks to torchbearers like Erwin Schrodinger, the quantum physicist who engineered the most famous feline paradox in the world, and Friedrich Hayek, whose ideas of money and the economy not only scored the country a Prize in 1974, but have retained a “controlling” hand in Western economic policy since the 1970s.
8. Canada: 22 Nobel laureates
You can thank Canada for medical hero Sir Frederick Banting, who discovered insulin in 1921 and remains the youngest recipient of the Prize in Medicine. And don’t forget Lester B. Pearson, Canada’s 14th Prime Minister, who won the Peace Prize in 1957 for organizing the UN Emergency Force that resolved the Suez Canal Crisis. But Canadian ingenuity isn’t all benevolence and courtesy: Over a third of Canada’s 22 laureates are ground-breaking chemists, and just five months ago, Canadian author Alice Munro snagged the Prize in Literature for her trailblazing short stories.
7. Russia: 23 Nobel laureates
Even without Dostoyevsky and Pushkin, who would’ve undoubtedly been Nobel laureates in the 19th century if the prize had been around, Russia still boasts some of the greatest literary achievements in human history. We tip our hats to the late Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose uncompromising accounts of Soviet totalitarianism virtually wrote the nation’s history. Then there were all the great Russian minds who pioneered work in quantum electronics, electromagnetic radiation, semiconductors, superfluids and a host of other things few of us plebeians fully understand (more than half of Russia’s Nobel Prizes are in physics).
6. Switzerland: 25 Nobel laureates
With the highest Nobel Prize-population ratio on this list, outweighing Canada’s by more than 5 times and Russia’s by 15, perhaps Switzerland knows something the rest of the world doesn’t about churning out Einsteins. Among them is one particularly famous Einstein you might have heard of: Albert Einstein himself was born in Germany, but the father of relativity owes a great part of his schooling, studies and biggest breakthroughs to Switzerland, where he published his work on the photoelectric effect, netting the Prize in Physics fifteen years later. The International Committee of the Red Cross, founded in Switzerland, has won the Nobel prize three times.
5. Sweden: 29 Nobel laureates
Perhaps it’s no surprise that Alfred Nobel’s home country, and the headquarters of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences that awards three of the six Nobel Prizes, ranks so high on the list. Like Switzerland, Sweden also has one of the highest laureate-population ratios in the world, and the second highest among our top ten winning countries. Notable laureates include Hannes Alfvén, who formulated fundamental ideas of the Earth’s magnetic field, and Svante Arrhenius—widely considered one of the founders of physical chemistry—who after his 1903 win served as director of the Nobel Institute until he died.
4. France: 59 Nobel laureates
French ingenuity typically evokes ideas of art, philosophy and literature for good reason. Since the founding of the Nobel Prize France has produced some of the biggest names in writing including Jean-Paul Sartre who – in true existential fashion – declined the prize in 1964 to avoid being “institutionalized”. But at 59 Nobel laureates, French minds sweep the breadth of human ingenuity. Marie Curie, the mother of radioactivity, remains the only woman and first person ever to win two separate Nobel Prize categories: the 1903 Prize in Physics, and the 1911 Prize in Chemistry.
3. Germany: 104 Nobel laureates
Germany’s reputation for mechanical brilliance doesn’t fully do its illustrious Nobel Prize record justice. Einstein’s birthplace also claims the founder of quantum theory, Max Planck, who won in 1918; Milton Friedman, whose ideas practically became Western economic policy in the 80s; and Henry Kissinger, who earned the Peace Prize in the US for facilitating its withdrawal from Vietnam. In case none of these names sound very familiar: Breaking Bad anti-hero Walter White also has Germany to thank for his namesake – the creator of quantum mechanics, Werner Heisenberg.
2. United Kingdom: 121 Nobel laureates
British ingenuity has captured a Nobel Prize nearly every year since the awards inception. With writers like Rudyard Kipling, Bertrand Russell, William Golding and V.S. Naipaul, Britain’s literary achievements alone are formidable. But the portrait just wouldn’t be complete without mentioning legendary Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who won for his own historical literature; or Peter Higgs, the namesake of the most sought-after particle in modern physics—the Higgs boson, discovered just last year; or the Indian-born Ronald Ross—the reason you’ve never had malaria.
1. United States: 356 Nobel laureates
It might catch flak for its incomparably high military spending or its relatively substandard health care, but when it comes to sheer ingenuity America’s international distinction is just as noteworthy. USA’s per capita rate of Nobel Prizes—which although sits 15th worldwide behind Britain, Sweden, Germany and even Iceland—far outranks every country with a comparable population, including the entire European Union. Holding over a third of all Prizes ever awarded, no one can deny America’s contributions to human thought.
So take a bow: John Nash, the beautiful mind behind game theory; Martin Luther King Jr. the civil rights visionary; literary forces of nature John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, T.S. Eliot, Sinclair Lewis and Ernest Hemingway; Richard Feynman, the father of quantum electrodynamics; Francis Crick and James Watson who derived the DNA double-helix in us all; and the other 346 American winners.