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by Kendra Hovey

“You’re never too old” is one of those uplifting sayings you don’t want to think too much about. Earning Olympic gold in gymnastics…winning the Fields Medal in mathematics…playing in COSI’s little kidspace…oh, to live on Sugar Mountain…to do any of these, a great number of us are, indisputably, too old.

But according to new research out of Ohio State if major scientific breakthrough is on your life list, you may in fact never be too old (for the under 30s, though, chances are good that, at least right now, you are too young).

Lingering within the walls of math and science is a long-harbored belief that the brilliant show themselves early. OSU economics professor Bruce Weinberg and his research partner Benjamin Jones of Northwestern decided to test this assumption. By collecting data on 500+ Nobel laureates in physics, chemistry and medicine from 1901 to 2008, they found that this notion of the brilliant young scientist was not so off-base—a century ago. Until 1905, about two-thirds of Nobel winners did their prize-winning work before age 40 (and about 20 percent did it before age 30).

In chemistry and medicine, though, those numbers decreased steadily over time. In physics, young achievement peaked later—in 1934—but in all three disciplines, by the year 2000, winners under the age 40 were rare, and those under 30, almost extinct. According to Weinberg: “Today, the average age at which physicists do their Nobel Prize winning work is 48. Very little breakthrough work is done by physicists under 30.”

Weinberg’s theory to explain this: In the early 1900s, quantum mechanics blew the lid off traditional science. It reset the rules and, in some ways, leveled the playing field. Says Weinberg: “It may be that young scientists did better, in part, because they never learned the older ways of thinking and could think in new ways.”

Today the situation is greatly changed. Scientists are spending much longer in graduate school and their research cites a greater breadth of work over time—a hundred years ago, citations were more often contemporaneous. “Because of their depth of knowledge,” says Weinberg, “older scientists may have an advantage.”

The findings bode well in light of demographics that show an increasingly older research workforce. “If you take the view that science is a young person’s game, then this aging trend is alarming,” Weinberg says. “But if scientists can be productive as they get older, as this study suggests, there may be less of a problem.”

To extrapolate a bit, this research may also have something to say about ideas and innovation in general, suggesting perhaps that:

  • knowing more and knowing less can both be key to breakthrough thinking
  • even in the most evidence-based fields, outdated assumptions are hard to shake
  • though we tend to rarefy what we can’t conceive, even the most abstract knowledge occurs within a material and historical context.

[And what about math? Perhaps more than any other discipline mathematics is thought to be “a young person’s game” (actually, a “young man’s game” but that’s a whole another bias). This was not discounted or verified by the OSU study because there is no Nobel in Math. The rumored reason—utterly unverified, but prevailing only because others dull in comparison—is that Nobel’s girlfriend had an affair with a mathematician. The stand-in Nobel in Math is the Fields Medal. Also not studied because it is only for those under age 40 and it is awarded every four years—one more way in which mathematicians have to get their numbers right.]

lllustration by Greg Bonnell 

Kendra Hovey is editor and head writer at Follow This. On Twitter @KendraHovey, she blogs at kendrahovey.com

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