Why ARE so many high-level scientists Jewish?

This thread is NOT about Bankers, Stockbrokers, Accountants, Financeurs etc.
For some reason whenever I ask on other boards the answers always revolve around the above professions.

So I want to make it clear that I AM ONLY REFFERING TO SCIENTISTS.
For example biologists, physicists, chemists, mathematicians, logicians etc.

Now in proportion to the percentage of Jews in the world, an unusually high level of scientific academic establishment arises. In the great annals of science and math, the baton seems to have passed from Einstein to Von Neumann to Feynmann to Weinberg & Glashow to Witten & now the rest of the pack (Seiberg, Steinhardt, Ovrut, Guth et al.)
I realise I’m being a little crude about my methodology, but it really does seem that wherever you look in upper level scientific academia (especially physics and math), you seem to find an over-represented Jewish sector there.

I’ll admit that part of the curiousity comes from a slight tint of Jewish blood in my veins, but after someone else pointed it out to me, it really got me wondering.
Do we have any statistics on this? Are Jews proportionally over-represented in the sciences?

And the biggest question of all is, why?

Are they just naturally better at handling the abstract world, is it down to a previous establishment of the values of academic discipline (perhaps through religion), or is it something else?
Please discuss.

For the same reason there are so many Jewish Bankers, Stockbrokers, Accountants, Financeurs etc.
We’re just so much smarter than everyone else.

I’ll take a serious stab at it, because I think that it is true.

The best thing that ever happened to Jewish intellectual culture was the Diaspora.

Jews became a coherent people spread out and intermingled within other cultures. A nation with no natural resources to exploit but with exposure to a wide variety of different ideas. Often prohibited from dealing with anything but ideas. With ideas as the only resource to deal in, and with circumstances such that they had exposure to a wide variety of them, Jews became traders in intellectual property, transporting them around the world, transforming and translating them to different needs in different domains. A culture that fostered and prized intellectualism was created out of need and opportunity. An over-representation of world class scientists is part of that tradition. Jewish culture is the mirror image of current Arab culture: lots of natural resources to exploit and somewhat insular, consequently with a current culture that is poor in intellectual life.

Because their mothers are?


Plus, there’s a large emphasis in Judaism on education and learning. As a matter of fact, for very religious Jews the ideal activity for any Jew is learning (the Talmud and other works, of course). In a religion that prizes learning and education so much, it’s natural to see many of its adherents rise in areas where learning is required.

Also, unlike Christianity and moreso Islam, Judaism has drifted away from a “one people, one truth” attitude. The proliferation of synagogues and denominations (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservadox, Humanist, etc.) shows that although certain groups may believe their group has a monopoly on what Judaism really is and is about, differences of opinions are tolerated to a large degree. As such, it’s possible to hold somewhat heretical views and yet live comfortably with Jewish beliefs and customs.

That also brings us to another point: Judaism while being a religion is not exclusively so. One can be an atheist and still be a Jew. Not so with Christianity, Islam, or almost any other religion. So, it’s easier for Jews to believe whatever they have come to believe without having to abandon or be thrown out of their religion.


Yeah, that touch of the schmaltz brush is cool, ain’t it? Got some of that, too. :cool:

DSeid and WeRSauron nailed it. It’s kinda disappointing when a potentially interesting discussion is cut short because a reply or two wraps everything up in a pretty bow, but what can you do?

Anyway, welcome aboard. I really liked all of the qualifications you threw into your post; you sound like somebody who will fit in here real well. Someone is bound to be offended by your use of “over-represented” (bolding mine) but that’s just part of the fun. (Thought you caught all the potential traps, didn’t you? :smack: Nice use of the hyphen, though.)

One more vote for the “they value education A LOT”… education is something you can take with you if you get driven out of the country you’re in.

Got it in one! Very reasoned and succinct post.

I think that the world is changing though. As a someone who has spent the last several years in grad school (physics) at an institution with several Nobel prize winners, I think that the percentage of Jewish scientists is shrinking. The circumstances that made Jews traders in intellectual property have disappeared with the creation of Israel and its “adoption” by the US. While the percentage of Jews that go to college and graduate school are still probably much higher than other social/ethnic/economic groups, I believe (IMHO, based on personal experience and from the attitudes of my many Jewish friends) that less stock is placed in education by the current generation than prior ones.

What is really interesting to me is the number of scientists from Asia being educated these days. In my school, probably 60-70 percent of graduate students in physics and engineering are from China, India, Pakistan, and Korea. While the percentage of foreign graduate students at US universities has been growing for decades (especially Asian grads), the proportions seem to have changed drastically since the early 1990s (when I received my BS).

No, because my mother nagged me into being one. :smiley:

Doing a quick head count of my scientific friends (aka my wife’s co-workers), I see the same general ethnic/religious distribution as the general population.

I would want some statistical evidence showing that actually there are more Jews in the scientific field than in the general population. I don’t know how. For instance listing the people who got a Nobel prize in sciences in the USA, and counting how many Jews there are in this list, or doing the same with the science professors in some university.

But I’m not ready to take the OP statement as a fact without further evidences. Naming a handful of well known Jews doesn’t cut it.

clair, well part of this is easy to document. The world Jewish population is only about 0.2%. About one out of every five hundred people on this planet are Jewish. There are twice as many Sikhs. 6% of the world is Buddhist. 18% are Muslim. 33% are Christian. (source: http://www.noharmm.org/religiouspop.htm )

Now go to the list of Nobel prize winners or some other reputable metric of accomplished scientist. Hard to know for sure from just a list of names, but have more than one out of every five hundred Nobel prize winners been Jewish? Is more than one out of five hundred of professors in science at prestigious institutions Jewish? Certainly it meets that standard. Way more than Sikhs (twice their population), Buddhists (30X their population), or Muslim (90X their population).

Eyer8, I’ll agree that it a less significant factor in today’s world than in days past. If the Jewish cultural intellectual “advantage” was exposure to ideas across the world, then today’s world of internet communication has given us all that potentiality. What Jews did in idea transport over a generation or two (fast for the standards of much of history), the internet can now do in less than a week. The only cultures left out will be those who choose to remain insular (eg much of current Arab culture) or who cannot afford to participate (eg much of Africa).

Here Clair, is a sample for the Nobel prize winners. In Chemistry 18% of the world’s winners have been Jewish. The site can guide through other examples of Jewish contribution to the world’s intellectual life, both in science and literature.

I don’t think this reasonning is correct, because the nobel prize winners are concentrated in western countries where the jewish population is already over-represented. The arab world, India, etc… where you would find most of the sikhs, muslims, budhists, etc… didn’t get many Nobel prizes. The comparison should rather be made between the %age of the jewish population in coutries that had a significant number of Nobel prize winners and the %age of Nobel prize winners in these countries who were jewish.
Similarily, when you check the number of jewish professor in a prestigious university, you shouldn’t compare it with the jewish population in the world at large but with the jewish population in the particular country where this institution is situated.
Or else, you could as well wonder why there are so much christian professors in american universities, for instance, and why you don’t find there 18% of muslims, 6% of buddhists, 3% of sikhs, etc… instead. Or at the contrary pick an Indian university and wonder why there are so much hinduists scientists and so few jewish and christian ones. Or pick an Israeli university and wonder why essentially all scientists are jewish.

OK. This cite is much more convincing since there’s isn’t 18% of the population of jewish origin in western countries.

I rest my case.

And, as that site shows, the percentages are even higher in physics (25%), medicine (28%), and economics (40%). They are lower in literature (11%) and peace (10%).

Also, if you look at the percentages of Jews among the Nobel Prize winners of U.S. nationality (where Jews make up 2% of the population), they’re even higher.

I think other key simlairlties between famous Jewish sceimntists/mathematicians beyond the fact that they are Jewish have been missed:

These famous Jewish scientists are almost exclusively non-observant, also more often than not they were the products of non-relgious upbringings (this is defintely the case of Einstein, Von Neumann, Feynman, Freud and Chomsky to name but a few), so it seems unlikely that there is any direct connection with the Jewish religion.

They were born in or after the latter half of the nineteenth century, with the earlier examples generally coming from Germany or one of it’s neighbours and the later examples generally coming from the US. There is also a trend towards left-wing poltics, but this is probably less important as this could simply refelect the general trend in the academic world.

So it would appear that the apparent success of Jewish scientists originated somewhere in and around Germany in the latter half of the nineteenth century. This happens to coincide with Jewish immigration from the east and the increased seculariztion, semi-assimlialtion and acceptance of the Jewish community in this area.

After the initial wave of immigrants a Jewish middle-class began to form, but even though many were non-relgious or even Christian converts, they could never gain the full acceptance of and certainly never be members of the establsihement reprenested by the upper-class aristocracy who ruled these countires (Germany and Austria).This led many of them towards areas were they could gain full-acceptance such as accademia and it also made them more receptive to more radical thinking than the conservative upper-class which rejected them. Germany at this time had overtaken Britain as the world’s priemier indusrial power and it had also started to challenge the British scientific hegemony. It was out of this climate that the first generation of great Jewish scientist were born.

Before during and after the decimation of the Jewish popualtion in Germany and it’s neighbours by the Third Reich, there was increased Jewish immigration to the USA which was now emerging as the world’s no.1 industralized power. Simlair conditions existed in the USA that had allowed the formation of a Jewish middle class and the success of Jews in academia, but after the sucess of the first wave of Jewish academics Jewish immigrants were in an even better postion to take advantage of them as academia was seen by the broader Jewish community as a way that someone could make something out of themselves and by this time an academic tradition existed in Jewish culture.

You can see parallels with the Asiamn community in the US in the present time as academia, partciualry the sciences, are seen as a road to sucess by the Asian community meaning that there are now many Asian scientists.

Jewish people are alot more likely to have a graduate or undergraduate degree than non-jews.


A quarter (24%) of Jewish adults 18 years of age and older has received a graduate degree, and 55% have earned at least a bachelor’s degree…The current comparable numbers for non-Jews are 5% and 28%.

As I understand it, Jewish tradition includes no threat of Hell for teaching Darwinism or researching stem cells. That’s gotta be advantageous.