Scientific Brilliance Doesn't Always Peak Young
MONDAY Nov. 7, 2011 -- The image of the brilliant young scientist making groundbreaking discoveries is iconic, especially in the fields of physics, chemistry and math.
Marie Curie's Nobel win in her early 30s for her discovery of radioactivity, and Albert Einstein's paper on his "Special Theory of Relativity," and another on the behavior of light for which he later won the Nobel prize -- both written in his mid-20s -- helped feed such notions.
However, new research in the Nov. 7 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences looking at Nobel Prize winners over the last century casts doubt on the idea that one must be youthful to rock the science world.
"There's a widespread perception that people in more abstract disciplines like mathematics and physics tend to do their best work at earlier ages compared to people in more concrete or contextual disciplines, like medicine or history. But we found that increasingly over the last century, especially in physics and in chemistry, people are doing important work at older ages," said study co-author Bruce Weinberg, a professor of economics at Ohio State University, in Columbus.
"So if you are 30 or 40 or 50, it doesn't necessarily mean you can't do important work in science, and presumably in other fields as well," Weinberg said.
Weinberg said despite the many assumptions, no one had looked closely at the topic, so he and colleague Benjamin Jones of Northwestern University, in Chicago, created a dataset culled from 525 Nobel Prize winners in physics, chemistry and medicine between 1900 and 2008.
They also read hundreds of biographies and autobiographies, collecting such details as at what age a scientist won his or her Nobel, and whether that material was more empirical or theoretical in nature.
The team also tracked the level of education achieved at the time of their award win, as well as when an individual earned his or her highest degree and how long it took to achieve it.
Weinberg said the researchers used what economists call a regression analysis, a commonly used statistical procedure, to tease out what the relationships were, and graphed age at peak creativity within fields and the change over time within fields.
The result: "We discovered there's a tendency toward more important scientific contributions coming at later ages," said Weinberg. The team say the trend was associated with the accumulation of knowledge over time, as well as a shift away from abstract, theoretical work towards more practical experimentation as the scientist got older.
Weinberg and Jones found that theoretical work peaked more often in a scientist's early career, but more experimental work blossomed with maturity. The only exception to this trend occurred in the field of physics.
The study observations are sound, but there could be many explanations for the findings, noted one Nobel Laureate, Dr. Oliver Smithies, Weatherspoon Eminent Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine. Smithies, 86, won the Nobel Prize in 2007 for work he had conducted at age 60, developing methods to alter genes in mice.
"Their observations are interesting, but the reasons behind the age distribution are not so easy to say. It could be due to the complexity of the field, or it could be because people are getting married earlier and their work is being delayed a little longer," Smithies said.
Still, the new study is an important contribution to the literature on age and achievement, said Dr. David Henry Feldman, director of the Developmental Science Group at the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development, at Tufts University.
"The long-held assumption that we are washed up by 30, or whatever age, in scientific fields is probably not true," he said. It's not true of other fields either, Feldman believes, although society's youth-focused tendencies sometimes make it blind to professional successes of older people, especially in the humanities and arts.
Feldman also noted that success can depend a great deal upon the field in which you work, and the work being done in that field during any given period.
"Our study suggests that people can do really important and original work, even well into their careers," said Weinberg.
Smithies, who has sustained a rich professional life well into his ninth decade, said, "I still feel about 35. I'm doing experiments. My wife is a scientist, too, so that's our major interest, even on weekends. And I'm still flying. I just renewed my license."
For a complete list of Nobel Prize winners, head to NobelPrize.org.
Posted: November 2011