The University of Chicago lays claim to an astonishing 78 Nobel laureates -- the most of any institution in the United States and second in the world only to England's University of Cambridge.

Renowned physicists Hans Bethe and Werner Heisenberg and economics guru Paul A. Samuelson are all counted among Chicago's Nobel brethren.

Wait a minute.

Didn't Bethe spend virtually his entire career at Cornell University? Isn't Samuelson considered the heart and soul of MIT economics? Did Heisenberg even spend more than a few months in Chicago?

"I think the University of Chicago counts everyone who ever walked through there," said Herbert Kroemer, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who shared the Nobel Prize for physics in 2000.

Counting Nobel Prizes is the ultimate academic sport. It is a no-holds-barred exercise in selective memory and fuzzy math.

Universities that normally pride themselves on academic virtues and scholastic precision can find themselves grasping for any plausible thread of affiliation with those anointed by Stockholm.

The University of Cambridge in Britain touts philosopher Bertrand Russell as its first Nobel laureate in literature, yet conveniently fails to mention that the 1950 prizewinner was fired for his antiwar activities during World War I.

During the Depression, Johns Hopkins and Columbia universities refused to give Maria Goeppert Mayer a real job with pay (she did research as a volunteer while her husband was a professor), but both were eager to claim credit for her 1963 Nobel Prize in physics.

The University of Chicago is widely viewed as having the most expansive method of counting Nobel laureates.

"There are some people on our list who were here only for a few years," acknowledged Larry Arbeiter, who tracks the prizes for the university. "I have often wondered: 'Is that the appropriate way to do that? Is there a better way to do it?' I haven't been able to come up with one."

Some schools have resisted the temptation to go Nobel-scrounging, using the strict criterion of claiming only laureates currently on their campuses.

"Some of them are really quite restrained," said sociologist Harriet Zuckerman, author of "Scientific Elite: Nobel Laureates in the U.S." "But not many."

Since the first gold medals were handed out in 1901, Swedish dignitaries have awarded almost 800 Nobel Prizes for achievements in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, economics, literature and peace.

However, the total number of prizes claimed by universities reaches into the thousands.

Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, who made his fortune from the invention and manufacture of dynamite, might take some pride in the extent to which the claiming of his awards have become an intercollegiate sport.

He set forth in his will that his fortune be used to endow "prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind."

Each prize -- often split two or three ways -- includes a substantial cash award meant to give winners the financial freedom to focus entirely on their research. This year's award is $1.3 million.

In the early 1900s, most winners hailed from Europe. The first crop included German physicist Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen for his discovery of X-rays and Swiss philanthropist Jean Henry Dunant, who inspired the Geneva Convention and founded the Red Cross.

After World War II, the American scientific and technical juggernaut that propelled the country to superpower status came to dominate the Nobels.

Predictably, competitive tallies soon followed.

"Although such competition seems trivial, it is serious business," Zuckerman wrote in "Scientific Elite."

Nobel Prizes make schools attractive to prospective students, faculty and donors, conferring the aura of a winner. The problem is that some universities can't help engaging in a little Nobel Prize inflation.

There is good reason for ambiguity in the accounting.

"A university does many things," said David J. Gross, a UC Santa Barbara professor who won the Nobel Prize for physics in 2004. "It teaches, so it's proud of its students who went on to do good things. They're proud of their researchers who worked at the institution who have done good things. And of course they're proud of the people who are there now and their impact on current research and current teaching."

So one school might claim a Nobel laureate who was there as an undergraduate, another for graduate work, another for advanced research, and several for being on the faculty. Who can say which school is most worthy?

California Institute of Technology President David Baltimore, whose 1975 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine is claimed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Rockefeller University and the California Institute of Technology, sees no need to attempt an answer.

"It is sort of a game, and you might as well play it by whatever rules you want, like solitaire," he said.

Caltech, which touts 31 "recognized heroes" who have garnered 32 Nobel Prizes over the years (Linus Pauling won for both chemistry and peace), gives itself credit for laureates among faculty and alumni. Former staffers may also be counted if they did some of their prize-winning work at the campus.

Visiting professors are out of bounds, Baltimore said.

Among the strictest counters is UC Santa Barbara.

The official tally includes only the five professors who won Nobels while at UCSB, all of whom are still active members of the faculty.

"It's logical," said Chancellor Henry T. Yang. Counting any other way "has never occurred to me."

Although UCSB is still trying to repair the academic damage after being named Playboy magazine's No. 22 party school in 2002, it has won so many Nobels recently that it can afford to be strict.

"You don't just lie down on the beach and win Nobel Prizes," Yang said.

UC Santa Barbara declined to claim 2004 physics Nobelist Frank Wilczek of MIT and three other laureates who spent time on campus but are no longer at the school.

"I'm disappointed," Wilczek said. "I spent several years there. I was one of the founding members of their Institute for Theoretical Physics. I would have thought they'd be proud to claim me."

The University of Chicago, however, was happy to claim Wilczek by virtue of his 1970 bachelor's degree in mathematics.

Chicago counts anyone who has studied or worked there full time, including professors with temporary appointments and research associates who worked on campus as part of World War II's Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb.

Wilczek, who is proud to be listed on Chicago's Nobel honor roll, scoffs at the school's practice of taking credit for prizes awarded to visiting faculty members.

"That's pretty lame," he said. "Chicago has a lot to be proud of, but maybe it . . . makes them seem ridiculous to stretch it that much."

Still, he understands the motivation. "They feel they're in competition with the Ivy Leagues," he said. "They're kind of isolated in the Midwest."

The University of Chicago's Arbeiter says it's far from clear how to formulate a rule that would be fair in all cases.

"What would be the strictest criteria -- that you can't claim a prize unless he or she was educated there, spent time there, did the work there, was there when they won and is there still?" he said. "There may be two people who fit that criteria in the history of the Nobel."

When Nobelist Hans Bethe is true to his school, is it Chicago or Cornell?

Paul Samuelson of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology gets an award from President Bill Clinton in 1996. The University of Chicago also claims Samuelson. Caltech President David Baltimore, above, is claimed by three schools. Fellow Nobelist Frank Wilczek of MIT was also claimed by Chicago.