Many reflections on creativity and innovation can be made regarding the Nobel Prize. Each award represents groundbreaking achievements of the highest order and so far more than 700 men and women have become Nobel Prize laureates. Today, December 10, that list will be a couple of names longer.
In order to connect this to innovation through intersections of fields and cultures I will relate some research by Professor Gunnar Törnqvist. He specializes in Economic Geography and is a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. He has devoted a lot of work to studying the creative processes behind the science prizes. Based on a vast material of statistics, biographies and other sources he has looked at factors like family background, education, career choices, collaborations, movement between countries etc. Some findings are expected and others are more remarkable.
For instance, it is estimated that 20 percent of all science laureates grew up in Jewish homes in Europe. Törnqvist discusses different explanations for this overrepresentation. One is that being part of a minority makes an individual familiar with different cultures – the one at home and the one of the surrounding society. Such natural switch between perspectives cultivates an open mindedness that is an advantage for any scientist in search of new answers. Another factor is that most of these scientists had to leave Europe and therefore continued their careers at the top universities in America instead. If you look at the lives of innovative researchers (like the Nobel Laureates) it seems that it is an enormous advantage to have moved between countries and universities; it results in a mix of perspectives and many meetings.
Many of these men (yes, they are all men) are originally from Hungary and therefore they also belong to another group that is astonishingly overrepresented among Nobel Prize laureates: Scientists who, as young boys, were educated at the finest high schools in Budapest in the beginning of the twentieth century. According to Törnqvist 20 of the top scientists of the last century grew up in Hungary. He argues that there is more creativity in times of turbulence and Budapest really was diverse and politically instable in those days. Almost all of these Hungarian laureates-to-be migrated to America and Törnqvist stresses the importance of this move from one academic context to another.
He convincingly shows that there is a pattern; that there are circumstances that inspire and catalyze innovation and that exposure to different perspectives and cultures has a significant impact on the creative performance of individuals.