Nobel Oklahomans

by Matthew Crouch


I know you were all as anxious as I was to see whether Richard Roberts would pull off an upset win for the Nobel Peace prize this year.

Alas, no Oklahoman has yet brought home the gold, and mentioning “Oklahoma” and “Nobel” in a single sentence usually leads to a conversation about Steinbeck–who spent no time in the state and garnered all his information about Salisaw from Okies that had made it California. Some other previous winners really have lived here, however briefly.

Robert B. Laughlin

Laughlin shared the 1998 Physics award with Horst L. Störmer and Daniel C. Tsui “for their discovery of a new form of quantum fluid with fractionally charged excitations”. But first, he spent some time in Fort Sill learning how to launch nuclear missiles: “this part of Oklahoma is laid back and rather beautiful, with rolling brown hills not unlike the ones in California. The Pershing missiles, on the other hand, were not beautiful.”

Laughlin finished his draft service in Germany and was then able to complete a graduate program at MIT. This led to a job with Bell Labs’s Theory Group, a highly-sought-after position among theoretical physicists. Puzzled by some of his colleagues’ work, he “hit on the idea of replacing a calculation of the current with a derivative of the energy with respect to vector potential.. thus was born what later became known as the ‘gauge argument’ for accurate quantization of the Hall conductance.”

Got that? Let’s just say that if a quantum computer or time machine is ever actually created, Laughlin will have had a hand in it.

The effect Laughlin had hit upon proved a little exotic for Bell Labs, which chose not to keep him on permanently, so he took a job at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, researching (wait for it) nuclear weapons. In his spare time he continued pondering the Hall effect and wrote the paper that earned him the Prize.

James Heckman

Heckman took the Economic Prize in memory of Alfred Nobel, 2000, for “theory and methods of analyzing samples.”

Heckman is one of the world’s foremost experts in microeconometrics, a field on the border between economics and statistics. The work for which he received his prize was on selection bias. As an example: analyzing factors—like education, or race—that may affect an individual’s wages, the data is biased because a non-random subpopulation simply chooses not to work. This subpopulation’s wages are therefore unobserverd, and the correction applied to accommodate this fact is called the “Heckman correction.”

This isn’t quite as dry as it seems; Heckman’s work is of immense interest to policy makers, and he has been tapped to advise many campaigns including that of Barack Obama.

Working with President Obama must surely have been a rewarding experience for a man who lived in Oklahoma during the 1950s: “My brief time in the South… left lasting impressions on me,” Heckman said in his autobiography. “I encountered the system of racial discrimination known as ‘Jim Crow’ in its final manifestation. The separate water fountains, park benches, bathrooms and restaurants of the Jim Crow South startled me. These experiences motivated my lifelong study of the status of African Americans and the sources of improvement in that status.”


Matthew Crouch is a writer based in Tulsa, Oklahoma.