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9 Nobel Prize Winners That Hail from California

9 Nobel Prize Winners That Hail from California

These Nobel Prize winners have made contributions of great significance in medicine, physics, chemistry, literature, peace, and more.


4 min read

December 05, 2021

Home to the most educated cities and the best college towns, it’s no wonder that California is where many of the world’s geniuses hail from. Most of these brilliant minds ended up doing groundbreaking discoveries that earned them the title of Nobel laureates. Even the ones that aren’t from here most likely studied at the state’s universities. As pioneers in their respective fields, these Nobel Prize winners have made contributions of great significance in medicine, physics, chemistry, literature, peace, and economic sciences.

These Are The Nobel Laureates from California

Patapoutian is a neuroscience professor and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at Scripps Research. Photo courtesy of the Nobel Prize.

Nobel Prize Winners  for Physiology or Medicine

1. Ardem Patapoutian

Ardem Patapoutian won the 2021 Nobel Prize in Medicine alongside fellow American David Julius despite them carrying out the work independently. The Nobel laureate was originally born in Lebanon to Armenian parents and moved to the U.S. to pursue higher education The duo’s discovery of receptors in the skin that sense temperature and touch could pave the way for new and more effective painkillers. Thanks to Papoutian’s research, we can now understand how humans convert the physical impact from heat or touch into nerve impulses. The molecular biologist and neurologist currently works at Scripps Research in La Jolla. 

2. Carol W. Greider

This San Diego-born molecular biologist and Nobel Prize winner first discovered the enzyme telomerase in 1984—Greider was still a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley back then. After graduation, she pioneered research on the structure of telomeres, and in 2009, Greider became the honorary recipient of the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine, alongside two fellow scientists. The three discovered that telomeres are protected from progressive shortening by the enzyme telomerase. As one of the most famous women in the history of California and the world, Greider is now a professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. 

Nobel Prize Winners in Physics

In 1983, Laughlin was first to provide a many-body wave function for the fractional quantum hall effect. Photo courtesy of the Nobel Prize.

3. Robert Betts Laughlin

This Nobel Prize winner in Physics has a function named after him, the Laughlin Wavefunction. Robert B. Laughlin, along with Horst L. Stomer and Daniel C. Tsui, was awarded a share of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Physics for their explanation of the fractional quantum hall effect. To break it down to you, this is when an electrical current flows through a metal band and a magnetic field is situated at a right angle of said band, a diagonal charge arises within the band. Laughlin now teaches Physics and Applied Physics at Stanford University. 

4. Eric Allin Cornell

Born in Palo Alto, Eric Allin Cornell is famous for synthesizing the first Bose-Einstein condensate in 1995. Back in 1924, Satyendra Nath Bose and Albert Einstein predicted that at very low temperatures atoms with whole-number spins can concentrate in the lowest energy state, forming a Bose-Einstein condensate. That prediction was proven right in 1995 when Eric Cornell and his friends proved it in a rarefied gas of rubidium atoms at a very low temperature. Alongside fellow physicists Carl Wieman, and Wolfgang Ketterle, they won the shared Nobel Prize in Physics in 2001. 

Nobel Prize Winners in Chemistry

Edwin Mattison McMillan produced the first-ever transuranium element, neptunium, for which he shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Glenn Seaborg.

5. Edwin Mattison McMillan

Until the year 1940, the heaviest element existing in nature was uranium with an atomic number of 92. That same year, Edwin McMillan used a particle accelerator to radiate uranium with neutrons, and as a result, an element with an atomic number of 93 was created. Over the years, McMillan contributed to the mapping of new heavy elements, and in 1951, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. To this day, students all around the world learn McMillan’s discoveries in the chemistry of the transuranium element.

6. Dudley Robert Herschbach

San Jose is known as the birthplace of modern technology, and it comes as no surprise that one of the most respected and celebrated chemists of all time Dudley Herschbach is from here. At the end of 1960, Herschbach and chemist Yuan Lee began developing methods to study the dynamics of chemical reactions. Molecule beams with a set amount of energy were made to cross one another. Thanks to the chemical reactions the beams intersected, the chemists were able to map the reactions by measuring the movement, mass, and energy of the produced molecules. In 1969, they received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their contributions to the dynamics of chemical elementary processes.

Nobel Prize Winners in Economics

Since the 60s, Ostrom was involved in resource management policy and created a research center. Photo courtesy of the Nobel Prize.

7. Elinor Ostrom

2009 was a proud year for women—two of the state’s female leaders became Nobel laureates.  One of only 45 women to receive a Nobel Prize, Elinor Ostrom proved herself worthy of the honor. Her longtime study of how local property can be successfully managed by local commons without needing any regulation by central authorities made her a hard-to-beat candidate. The political economist won the Nobel Prize in Economics for her analysis of economic governance, especially the commons. Ostrom’s life was cut short when she passed away in 2012. However, her legacy is alive in her hometown L.A. and beyond.

As of 2020, Thomas J. Sargent ranks as the 29th most cited economist in the world. Photo courtesy of the Nobel Prize.

8. Thomas J. Sargent

Pasadena-native Thomas J. Sargent became the third California-born winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics. Prior to becoming a Nobel laureate in 2011, Sargent spent hours developing methods for examining the relationship between policy and economics. Sargent shared the award with fellow econometrician and macroeconomist Christopher A. Sims. It was their empirical research on the cause and effect of macroeconomy that got them ahead of other candidates. 

Nobel Prize Winners in Literature

During his writing career, John Steinbeck authored 33 books, with one book coauthored alongside Edward Ricketts.

9. John Steinbeck

Literary genius John Steinbeck is the pride and joy of his hometown Salinas even almost half a century after his death. During his years at Stanford University, Steinbeck had to work in farm fields during breaks—these experiences were evident in his future writings. Steinbeck’s focus on migrants and seasonal workers was observable in his famous books Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath. And when this famous Californian won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962, he earned it due to his realistic yet imaginative writings, combining sympathetic humor, and keen social perception. 

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