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Q&A: Aging Geniuses

A new study shows that over the past century, the age at which scientists produce their most valuable work is increasing.

By | November 8, 2011

Isaac Newton, Marie Curie, and Albert EinsteinWIKIPEDIA

Isaac Newton was just 23 years old when, while on a brief hiatus from Cambridge University, he developed his theory of gravitation. “For in those days I was in my prime of age for invention, and minded mathematics and philosophy more than at any time since,” he later wrote in a letter to a fellow scholar.

Similarly, at age 26, Einstein published the paper on the photoelectric effect that would win him a Nobel Prize 16 years later in 1921. Marie Curie was around 30 when she, along with her husband Pierre, discovered the radioactive elements radium and polonium.

But according to economists Benjamin Jones and Bruce Weinberg, young scientists making groundbreaking contributions to their fields are becoming an endangered breed. In a study published yesterday (November 7) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they reported that the chances a Nobel Prize winner at the turn of the 21st century produced their winning work by the age 30 or even 40 is close to zero.

Their analysis of 525 Nobel Prize winners (182 in physics, 153 in chemistry, and 190 in medicine) between 1900 and 2008, revealed that while the mean age at which they did their Nobel-prize winning work was around 37 for the three fields in the early 20th century, they are now around 50, 46, and 45 for Physics, Chemistry, and Medicine, respectively. The Scientist spoke to Weinberg, a microeconomist at Ohio State University, and Jones, a macroeconomist at the The Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University, about the trends in age and creativity in science, and what they may mean for the future of science research.

The Scientist: As economists, why are you interested in when scientists are making their biggest contributions to their fields?

 Benjamin Jones: In an advanced economy like the United States, technological and scientific progress is a primary driver of economic growth and prosperity. Therefore, studying how innovation happens is critical to understanding economic outcomes. One of the puzzles that has been in my mind and in a lot of other economists’ minds for some time is that we put more and more effort into research and development—more people, more dollars—but the growth rate of the US economy remains fairly consistent over time; it doesn’t rise despite the fact we try harder and harder. The implication of that is that the contributions of individual researchers to the overall economy seem to be declining with time.

Bruce Weinberg: What we find is that there are substantial shifts over time within the fields in terms of both the prevalence of theoretical contributions and the amount of knowledge and the amount of time that it takes to get to the research frontier in fields. Those relationships then map on to and are reflected in the ages in which people are doing their more important work. As the amount of knowledge in a field accumulates—[for] which we have one direct measure based on backward citations in articles, and one indirect measure based on when people receive their highest degrees—the great contributions come at later ages.

TS: What pattern did you observe concerning age and creativity in science throughout the 20th century?

 BW: In chemistry there’s a shift to older ages over the course of the 20th century. In medicine you see a decline in the frequency of very early contributions. So people aren’t really making Nobel contributions before age 30 in medicine anymore, whereas they did earlier in the 20th century.

BJ: But what’s really interesting is that in physics, during the early 20th century it’s going the other way very strongly. Suddenly there’s a big burst of work by young people in the 1920s and 1930s, and this is associated with the quantum mechanics revolution, which was a time when people realized, because of a small number of empirical irregularities, that classical physics didn’t seem to be explaining what was going on at a very micro level. So it was kind of open season.  But as quantum mechanics becomes more established as a very powerful and effective theory for explaining empirical facts, you start to see…a shift toward experimental work again, and that’s associated with older scholars relative to younger scholars making great contributions. Interestingly we, we don’t see the same type of dynamics [for chemistry and medicine]. We see a smoother decline in very young scholarship, for example, which suggests a smoother increase in foundational knowledge and with that perhaps a smoother shift toward more experimental work.

TS: Some studies suggest that creativity declines with age and may peak before middle age. How does that finding fit with this trend?

 BW: There are different ways of making important contributions. One is more abstract and theoretical and the other is more empirical and experimental, which is based more on the accumulation of knowledge. It is the case that the theorists on average do their best work earlier in their careers than the empiricists and experimenters. The people who are making these important contributions later in their lives are really making those contributions using a different approach than the people who are making radical early career contributions.

 BJ: If people are naturally very productive in their 20s, either because there is some innate physiological advantage or because they are just very energetic and have strong incentive, but instead they’re saddled with having to learn all this accumulated knowledge, that does suggest that we are taking a chunk out of people’s innovative capabilities at a time in their lives when those capabilities are potentially very high. That suggests there’s a really strong opportunity cost. That doesn’t mean that’s an easy problem to solve because it is necessary for these scholars to become experts before they can really make a big contribution. It’s also the case that there’s more to know and you just can’t know everything. One implication is that people become much narrower experts. That also makes people’s creativity a bit narrower.

BW: In a more policy context, there is extreme angst at, for instance, the National Institutes of Health, over the fact that they’re funding an increasingly aging pool of researchers. That’s something that has caused a lot of concern. There are a variety of reasons why you would want more support going to young investigators. The young investigators may simply drift away from science to industry or to other endeavors if they simply can’t get funding earlier in their careers. But in so far as we’re finding that… at least in some of these fields, people are increasingly making important contributions later in their lives, it does suggest that some of the concern may be overstated.

TS: What do these trends mean for the future of science?

 BJ: We do see that contributions per researcher to the overall economy seems to be declining with time. If these trends continue, it is alarming, because [researchers] are less productive overall. The way we go about that traditionally is we throw more and more people at the problem. So it’s okay in a sense if there are less contributions per person if you can throw more minds at it. One of the interesting questions is, as these trends continue, can we keep throwing more and more resources, people, and dollars of the society at this problem? If we ultimately can’t do that then we need to think of other ways to make the research process more efficient.

B.F. Jones and B.A. Weinberg, “Age dynamics in scientific creativity,” PNAS, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1102895108, 2011.

 

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Comments

Avatar of: TDHawkes

TDHawkes

Posts: 2

November 8, 2011

Is it possible the research questions we face now require the combined efforts of many minds? 

Avatar of: mightythor

mightythor

Posts: 1457

November 8, 2011

Revealing.  When you think of questions as something you "face", you're probably practicing fairly conservative science.  Your questions arise from the orderly development of a mature paradigm.  That's an old man's game.

Avatar of: Pablo_de_Felipe

Pablo_de_Felipe

Posts: 6

November 8, 2011

Experimental science needs a lot of funding, and this is a trend that has increased during the 20th century. Young researchers are less likely to be able to get such funding than a well connected and experienced (in terms of paper work) Professor. That might be a reason...

Avatar of: John

John

Posts: 1457

November 8, 2011

In light of this, isn't it unfortunate that the Nobel Prize Committee only awards the Nobel Prize to living people, i.e. must be alive at the time of award announcement ... may be their rules will have to change with the times!

Avatar of: David H

David H

Posts: 41

November 8, 2011

Strange association of 'genius' with Nobel prizewinners!  Let the 'average' man participate in science, and any association of this kind will appear silly.  Now, you have to pass a lot of tests just to get into a good grad school.  But what if you didn't have to?  Maybe people of lower IQ could do as much science as anyone else.  After all, it's not based on 'genius' or authority of one observer, but the ability of any observer to independently corroborate results.  Good science is a philosophy, and the IQ of its adherents may not really be well correlated with the quality of their science.

Avatar of: JoeChange

JoeChange

Posts: 3

November 8, 2011

I am 72 and have yet to publish one of the most important scientific discoveries of all time, a solar compass for the human domain! It comes down to the simple proposition that humans have evolved to respond in their first year's development to phase differences of the approximately sinusoidal solar energy flow to our temperate zones throughout the year ---one cycle per year--- with systematic differences in neural networking parameters, which lead to profound differences in ways of being human.  Such phase differences amount to birthday! Therefore, we need to rescue birthday from astrology's archaic notions and begin to appreciate human nature as a circular birthday spectrum. Such an improvement in our sorting individual differences will be analogous to the benefits of the Periodic Table! My actual name is Joseph W. Friendly.

Avatar of: Lee Shephard

Lee Shephard

Posts: 1

November 8, 2011

Given that most scientists nowadays need to spend 4 years in college, several years in grad school, several more years in postdoc(s), and several more years scrabbling for funding to get a lab set up, it is not surprising that the years in which they get to do their most original research has been pushed out from their 20's to their 40's to 50's. Especially for experimentalists.This was not the case in Newton's day, and Einstein famously worked as a postal clerk while doing his seminal work. I would be curious if more purely theoretical researchers in something like non-computational mathematics have seen their most productive years pushed out as much. They require less funding, so there may be some chance they can contribute earlier? Mostly though, they still have to follow that same academic path.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

November 8, 2011

Is it possible the research questions we face now require the combined efforts of many minds? 

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

November 8, 2011

Revealing.  When you think of questions as something you "face", you're probably practicing fairly conservative science.  Your questions arise from the orderly development of a mature paradigm.  That's an old man's game.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

November 8, 2011

Experimental science needs a lot of funding, and this is a trend that has increased during the 20th century. Young researchers are less likely to be able to get such funding than a well connected and experienced (in terms of paper work) Professor. That might be a reason...

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

November 8, 2011

In light of this, isn't it unfortunate that the Nobel Prize Committee only awards the Nobel Prize to living people, i.e. must be alive at the time of award announcement ... may be their rules will have to change with the times!

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

November 8, 2011

Strange association of 'genius' with Nobel prizewinners!  Let the 'average' man participate in science, and any association of this kind will appear silly.  Now, you have to pass a lot of tests just to get into a good grad school.  But what if you didn't have to?  Maybe people of lower IQ could do as much science as anyone else.  After all, it's not based on 'genius' or authority of one observer, but the ability of any observer to independently corroborate results.  Good science is a philosophy, and the IQ of its adherents may not really be well correlated with the quality of their science.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

November 8, 2011

I am 72 and have yet to publish one of the most important scientific discoveries of all time, a solar compass for the human domain! It comes down to the simple proposition that humans have evolved to respond in their first year's development to phase differences of the approximately sinusoidal solar energy flow to our temperate zones throughout the year ---one cycle per year--- with systematic differences in neural networking parameters, which lead to profound differences in ways of being human.  Such phase differences amount to birthday! Therefore, we need to rescue birthday from astrology's archaic notions and begin to appreciate human nature as a circular birthday spectrum. Such an improvement in our sorting individual differences will be analogous to the benefits of the Periodic Table! My actual name is Joseph W. Friendly.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

November 8, 2011

Given that most scientists nowadays need to spend 4 years in college, several years in grad school, several more years in postdoc(s), and several more years scrabbling for funding to get a lab set up, it is not surprising that the years in which they get to do their most original research has been pushed out from their 20's to their 40's to 50's. Especially for experimentalists.This was not the case in Newton's day, and Einstein famously worked as a postal clerk while doing his seminal work. I would be curious if more purely theoretical researchers in something like non-computational mathematics have seen their most productive years pushed out as much. They require less funding, so there may be some chance they can contribute earlier? Mostly though, they still have to follow that same academic path.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

November 8, 2011

Is it possible the research questions we face now require the combined efforts of many minds? 

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

November 8, 2011

Revealing.  When you think of questions as something you "face", you're probably practicing fairly conservative science.  Your questions arise from the orderly development of a mature paradigm.  That's an old man's game.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

November 8, 2011

Experimental science needs a lot of funding, and this is a trend that has increased during the 20th century. Young researchers are less likely to be able to get such funding than a well connected and experienced (in terms of paper work) Professor. That might be a reason...

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

November 8, 2011

In light of this, isn't it unfortunate that the Nobel Prize Committee only awards the Nobel Prize to living people, i.e. must be alive at the time of award announcement ... may be their rules will have to change with the times!

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

November 8, 2011

Strange association of 'genius' with Nobel prizewinners!  Let the 'average' man participate in science, and any association of this kind will appear silly.  Now, you have to pass a lot of tests just to get into a good grad school.  But what if you didn't have to?  Maybe people of lower IQ could do as much science as anyone else.  After all, it's not based on 'genius' or authority of one observer, but the ability of any observer to independently corroborate results.  Good science is a philosophy, and the IQ of its adherents may not really be well correlated with the quality of their science.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

November 8, 2011

I am 72 and have yet to publish one of the most important scientific discoveries of all time, a solar compass for the human domain! It comes down to the simple proposition that humans have evolved to respond in their first year's development to phase differences of the approximately sinusoidal solar energy flow to our temperate zones throughout the year ---one cycle per year--- with systematic differences in neural networking parameters, which lead to profound differences in ways of being human.  Such phase differences amount to birthday! Therefore, we need to rescue birthday from astrology's archaic notions and begin to appreciate human nature as a circular birthday spectrum. Such an improvement in our sorting individual differences will be analogous to the benefits of the Periodic Table! My actual name is Joseph W. Friendly.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

November 8, 2011

Given that most scientists nowadays need to spend 4 years in college, several years in grad school, several more years in postdoc(s), and several more years scrabbling for funding to get a lab set up, it is not surprising that the years in which they get to do their most original research has been pushed out from their 20's to their 40's to 50's. Especially for experimentalists.This was not the case in Newton's day, and Einstein famously worked as a postal clerk while doing his seminal work. I would be curious if more purely theoretical researchers in something like non-computational mathematics have seen their most productive years pushed out as much. They require less funding, so there may be some chance they can contribute earlier? Mostly though, they still have to follow that same academic path.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

November 9, 2011

In commercial era how can scientist research  for pure curiosity.All multinational corporation  purchased the scientist.  They forced that do research on this on that.Another problem is sciences are reach in extreme point beyond that all is dark. Many scientists are confessing the end of sciences.Another scientists are requesting to stop further research enough is enough.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

November 9, 2011

Very revealing article. I have worked in reseach labs as an undergrad, but I was older. I was suprised to see how much reseach time is spent on "reinventing the wheel," and other nonsense that already has a solution in industry. This article passes over key factors and a modern culture that channels minds into narrow pathways.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

November 9, 2011

In commercial era how can scientist research  for pure curiosity.All multinational corporation  purchased the scientist.  They forced that do research on this on that.Another problem is sciences are reach in extreme point beyond that all is dark. Many scientists are confessing the end of sciences.Another scientists are requesting to stop further research enough is enough.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

November 9, 2011

Very revealing article. I have worked in reseach labs as an undergrad, but I was older. I was suprised to see how much reseach time is spent on "reinventing the wheel," and other nonsense that already has a solution in industry. This article passes over key factors and a modern culture that channels minds into narrow pathways.

Avatar of: rameshraghuvanshi

rameshraghuvanshi

Posts: 20

November 9, 2011

In commercial era how can scientist research  for pure curiosity.All multinational corporation  purchased the scientist.  They forced that do research on this on that.Another problem is sciences are reach in extreme point beyond that all is dark. Many scientists are confessing the end of sciences.Another scientists are requesting to stop further research enough is enough.

Avatar of: primativewriter

primativewriter

Posts: 22

November 9, 2011

Very revealing article. I have worked in reseach labs as an undergrad, but I was older. I was suprised to see how much reseach time is spent on "reinventing the wheel," and other nonsense that already has a solution in industry. This article passes over key factors and a modern culture that channels minds into narrow pathways.

Avatar of: Mounthell

Mounthell

Posts: 26

November 10, 2011

Every new domain open to human exploitation and remuneration attracts people not burdened with having invested their time and finite capacities in learning the traditional ways, once necessary, of engaging their world. That's why the early successful cohort consists of clever young entrants into the coming new field.

Sooner than later, however, the available niches -- particularly the low-hanging fruity ones -- become oversubscribed (occupied) and the domain exhibits maturity, e.g., quantum physics, solid-state electronics, the Internet, wireless applications, nanomaterials and so on.  What remains to be done is largely polishing the details and rearranging the furniture of the now-established science or technology. The underlying dynamic is older than nature itself.

Of course, after a lengthy period in which new insights into long-enduring, difficult ("really hard") questions dwindle, some barbaric upstart comes along to destroy the hallowed dogma with a new view that everybody thinks is preposterous in its simplicity (and it is when viewed using the traditional paradigm). Notice how physicists are praying they'll find something interesting in LHC experiments, such as the now mythical Higgs boson (they will find little that fits their hallowed paradigm, certainly no Higgs particle).  Moreover, the notion that it now takes groups or teams of researchers to come up with significant insights is self-serving nonsense.

As Max Planck observed many decades before these economists, new ideas await the passing of the stifling older generations in order to flower, that is, by way of a new generation that is familiar with the new ideas, having grown up with them.  In other words, one must outlive the bstds., a strategy requiring healthy longevity.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

November 10, 2011

Every new domain open to human exploitation and remuneration attracts people not burdened with having invested their time and finite capacities in learning the traditional ways, once necessary, of engaging their world. That's why the early successful cohort consists of clever young entrants into the coming new field.

Sooner than later, however, the available niches -- particularly the low-hanging fruity ones -- become oversubscribed (occupied) and the domain exhibits maturity, e.g., quantum physics, solid-state electronics, the Internet, wireless applications, nanomaterials and so on.  What remains to be done is largely polishing the details and rearranging the furniture of the now-established science or technology. The underlying dynamic is older than nature itself.

Of course, after a lengthy period in which new insights into long-enduring, difficult ("really hard") questions dwindle, some barbaric upstart comes along to destroy the hallowed dogma with a new view that everybody thinks is preposterous in its simplicity (and it is when viewed using the traditional paradigm). Notice how physicists are praying they'll find something interesting in LHC experiments, such as the now mythical Higgs boson (they will find little that fits their hallowed paradigm, certainly no Higgs particle).  Moreover, the notion that it now takes groups or teams of researchers to come up with significant insights is self-serving nonsense.

As Max Planck observed many decades before these economists, new ideas await the passing of the stifling older generations in order to flower, that is, by way of a new generation that is familiar with the new ideas, having grown up with them.  In other words, one must outlive the bstds., a strategy requiring healthy longevity.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

November 10, 2011

Every new domain open to human exploitation and remuneration attracts people not burdened with having invested their time and finite capacities in learning the traditional ways, once necessary, of engaging their world. That's why the early successful cohort consists of clever young entrants into the coming new field.

Sooner than later, however, the available niches -- particularly the low-hanging fruity ones -- become oversubscribed (occupied) and the domain exhibits maturity, e.g., quantum physics, solid-state electronics, the Internet, wireless applications, nanomaterials and so on.  What remains to be done is largely polishing the details and rearranging the furniture of the now-established science or technology. The underlying dynamic is older than nature itself.

Of course, after a lengthy period in which new insights into long-enduring, difficult ("really hard") questions dwindle, some barbaric upstart comes along to destroy the hallowed dogma with a new view that everybody thinks is preposterous in its simplicity (and it is when viewed using the traditional paradigm). Notice how physicists are praying they'll find something interesting in LHC experiments, such as the now mythical Higgs boson (they will find little that fits their hallowed paradigm, certainly no Higgs particle).  Moreover, the notion that it now takes groups or teams of researchers to come up with significant insights is self-serving nonsense.

As Max Planck observed many decades before these economists, new ideas await the passing of the stifling older generations in order to flower, that is, by way of a new generation that is familiar with the new ideas, having grown up with them.  In other words, one must outlive the bstds., a strategy requiring healthy longevity.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

November 14, 2011

Nothing too surprising in that article.

Seems to me to be several factors at work.

One is that the more we know, the further one must "travel" to reach the edge of "known space", this takes time and study.

Another is that as we expand our awareness into new dimensions of "paradigm space" (ways of organising knowledge space, with new ways of approaching the unknown "possibility space"), it simply takes longer to become aware of and familiar with these new ways of organising information and thinking.

Another factor is that we tend to live in rule based systems.   As rule based systems get more and more comprehensive, it becomes more and more difficult to break out of them, and see something truly novel (in whatever dimension or paradigm of thought).

Yet another factor is that bureaucracies tend to become conservative, and avoid risk.  Anything novel is inherently risky, and thus to be avoided.   Thus most institutions acquire a sort of inertia (at all levels and paradigms) that prevents exploration.

All of these factors lead to much truly novel work being done by individuals at the edge of the systems (often later in their careers).

As noted in the original article, both Einstein and Newton did their greatest work outside of the institutional world of academia.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

November 14, 2011

Nothing too surprising in that article.

Seems to me to be several factors at work.

One is that the more we know, the further one must "travel" to reach the edge of "known space", this takes time and study.

Another is that as we expand our awareness into new dimensions of "paradigm space" (ways of organising knowledge space, with new ways of approaching the unknown "possibility space"), it simply takes longer to become aware of and familiar with these new ways of organising information and thinking.

Another factor is that we tend to live in rule based systems.   As rule based systems get more and more comprehensive, it becomes more and more difficult to break out of them, and see something truly novel (in whatever dimension or paradigm of thought).

Yet another factor is that bureaucracies tend to become conservative, and avoid risk.  Anything novel is inherently risky, and thus to be avoided.   Thus most institutions acquire a sort of inertia (at all levels and paradigms) that prevents exploration.

All of these factors lead to much truly novel work being done by individuals at the edge of the systems (often later in their careers).

As noted in the original article, both Einstein and Newton did their greatest work outside of the institutional world of academia.

Avatar of: Ted Howard NZ

Ted Howard NZ

Posts: 7

November 14, 2011

Nothing too surprising in that article.

Seems to me to be several factors at work.

One is that the more we know, the further one must "travel" to reach the edge of "known space", this takes time and study.

Another is that as we expand our awareness into new dimensions of "paradigm space" (ways of organising knowledge space, with new ways of approaching the unknown "possibility space"), it simply takes longer to become aware of and familiar with these new ways of organising information and thinking.

Another factor is that we tend to live in rule based systems.   As rule based systems get more and more comprehensive, it becomes more and more difficult to break out of them, and see something truly novel (in whatever dimension or paradigm of thought).

Yet another factor is that bureaucracies tend to become conservative, and avoid risk.  Anything novel is inherently risky, and thus to be avoided.   Thus most institutions acquire a sort of inertia (at all levels and paradigms) that prevents exploration.

All of these factors lead to much truly novel work being done by individuals at the edge of the systems (often later in their careers).

As noted in the original article, both Einstein and Newton did their greatest work outside of the institutional world of academia.

November 15, 2011

wrbedzinski:is it evry time to evry scientologing for paradigmation of symbolic gen...
to system co-cooperativ is prof. to knowling to mentaly large funktion for add is inteligency person to form!wrb

Avatar of: Prince Taiwo Salami

Prince Taiwo Salami

Posts: 1457

November 15, 2011

science is life because without science life cannot exist

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

November 15, 2011

wrbedzinski:is it evry time to evry scientologing for paradigmation of symbolic gen...
to system co-cooperativ is prof. to knowling to mentaly large funktion for add is inteligency person to form!wrb

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

November 15, 2011

science is life because without science life cannot exist

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

November 15, 2011

wrbedzinski:is it evry time to evry scientologing for paradigmation of symbolic gen...
to system co-cooperativ is prof. to knowling to mentaly large funktion for add is inteligency person to form!wrb

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

November 15, 2011

science is life because without science life cannot exist

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