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Science

The Stroke of Genius Strikes Later In Life Than It Used To 162

Posted by Soulskill
from the i-blame-reality-tv dept.
InfiniteZero writes with this quote from MSNBC: "Einstein once said, 'A person who has not made his great contribution to science before the age of 30 will never do so.' That peak age has shifted considerably, a new study found, with 48 being prime time for physicists. ... For instance, in physics, in the early 20th century, a rise in young scientists generating prize-winning work coincided with the development of quantum mechanics. In fact, in 1923, the proportion of physicists who did their breakthrough work by age 30 peaked at 31 percent. Those who did their best work by age 40 peaked in 1934 at 78 percent. The proportion of physics laureates producing Nobel Prize-winning work under age 30 or 40 then declined throughout the rest of the century."
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The Stroke of Genius Strikes Later In Life Than It Used To

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  • Great (Score:2, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward

    There is hope for many on /.

    • by camperdave (969942) on Wednesday November 09, 2011 @01:56AM (#37995958) Journal
      You would think 47 would be the prime age for physicists, as 48 is fairly composite... highly composite even.
      • by Narcocide (102829)

        Hey! No math jokes! This is physics!

        • So we should reply instead with something like "A physicist, asked by a student to compute the gravitational field produced by a large bovine standing in a nearby field, replied with `First, assuming a spherical cow...'"?

          Sorry, at 56 (hardly prime, but 57 is just around the corner) I'm reduced to making bad jokes as there will be no prizes for me this year. Besides, I just assigned the spherical cow problem (seriously) in my intro physics class. It makes a great homework assignment...;-)

          rgb
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday November 08, 2011 @07:53PM (#37992988)

    Science requires lots of hard work to make major discoveries. The low hanging fruit has been picked (barring some sort of paradigm shift) in most fields. Therefore, it takes time to get into a system and specialize and learn about the area. Only then can you really make notable accomplishments. So, long story short, I expected it because science is hard.

    • Thank you for summarizing TFA which was way too long.

    • by hedwards (940851) on Tuesday November 08, 2011 @08:23PM (#37993282)

      Not just hard, but the experiments themselves these days are a lot more elaborate than they were a hundred or more years ago. If you need a super accurate sphere for an experiment, that can take years to develop in and of itself if you need more accuracy than what was previously available. Not to mention all those physicists that were in their early 20s when the LHC was first conceived of that are only in recent times getting to actually test those hypotheses that required more power than fermilab could put to the task.

      • I get the feeling science is also more institutional than it was 100 years ago. You need to look for grants, and to get funding you probably need credibility. Who's gonna blow a bunch of money on an experiment proposed by a 20 year old genius?

    • by jd (1658) <imipak&yahoo,com> on Tuesday November 08, 2011 @09:06PM (#37993648) Homepage Journal

      Yes and no. There's no more low-hanging fruit, sure, but let's examine the case of Ruth Lawrence [wikipedia.org]. There's nothing that I can find which gives her IQ, other than that child psychologists have seen plenty of people of equal calibre. I'm guessing, from the lack of diversity in her skills and the fact that there are many comparable people in a country as small as Britain, that it's probably in the mid 160s. The IQ rarity table [iqcomparisonsite.com] tells us that there's 100,000 people as bright as that.

      To put it another way, there should be High Schools in the US - maybe 2 in each State - that are teaching Harvard- or MIT-grade material, going by potential and the US' population.

      Yes, Ruth Lawrence was pressured far too hard and was lucky not to burn out the way Sufiah Yusof so spectacularly did. (She dropped out of Oxford and became a high-class hooker.) However, she nonetheless demonstrates that the human brain has vastly greater potential than is being utilized. No, not the mythical 10% bullshit. I'm talking about the much more real capacity of the brain to store and process data efficiently and effectively. Poor educational practices are leaving people dumber than necessary.

      But if you had 100,000 people doing BS/BA-grade work by the time they're 12, if they were going to make radical discoveries then you're damn right I'd expect them to do so by age 30. The failing isn't in Einstein's expectations, the failing is in the completely negligent teaching practices in use. Teaching today has barely evolved from Einstein's day, maybe even regressed in places, but science and technology have moved on. If the gap increases by too much, no human will have enough time to slug through at the crawl we currently demand of them to ever discover anything.

      Education is a race - not student against student, but method against requirement. And education is losing.

      • by g4b (956118) on Tuesday November 08, 2011 @09:54PM (#37994208) Homepage

        I still wonder, what IQ has to do with great scientific contributions?

        It might be right, that high intelligence - lets assume IQ correctly measures that - allows greater sums of knowledge to be processed faster achieving to grasp deeper insight, therefore allowing to reiterate your thoughts quicker and conclusively concluding faster and more precise, but it is still dependant on acquiring knowledge itself - which takes time and sources, as learning thinking patterns themselves - which requires teaching, humility and reflection. Any human being can be in the position even with lesser IQ to do this big task, with good education and a well protected life, and social stability, he even might do it quicker, than an overbright being, who burns his brainticks iterating over nonsense, or worse, fears.

        relying on inspiration, which requires to turn off logic once in a while and just have a hunch, I might add, is another factor I believe is a needed part of the recipe, and dont forget blessing or otherwise called luck, but those are clearly disputable.

        And to finally lift the curtain of inescapable human reductionism, it is never only one person, who does a breakthrough, its just one person who finishes one of many ongoing puzzles and others recognize it.

        • by jd (1658)

          I think we're basically on the same page.

          A great IQ means you can find patterns and connect dots faster than others. Essentially, a hunch is the same thing with incomplete data.

          Good education could raise everyone's standards enormously. For all practical intents and purposes, the difference between the least-educated of the poorest farming communities and the very best of the agriculturalists, horticulturalists and gardeners is solely that the latter group have been taught how to correlate and how to resear

      • As an example of this....Standard math books for Chinese kids three years old contain math that I didn't see until the third grade. My oldest son is far enough ahead that his American school decided to move him ahead a year, but he's way behind in his Chinese workbooks.

        In some ways I think the situation has improved though. Although standardized tests are watered down compared to when I was young, there are good school districts now if you can afford to live in one. I can't say the instruction is very go

      • by wrook (134116) on Wednesday November 09, 2011 @01:10AM (#37995700) Homepage

        Education is hard. I've been doing it now (after 20 years as a programmer) for 4 1/2 years and am only now starting to see some of the issues.

        One of the biggest problems is that there is a difference between knowing facts and being able to use them. It's a bit like knowing vocabulary in a language and being able to speak. It is the facility with knowledge that we require, but we value only the ability to recall facts. I'm teaching language at the moment and this is a field where it should be obvious. And yet after 6 years of study many students (well most, really) can't have *any* meaningful conversations in the target language. Their curriculum includes vocabulary similar to a 6 year old native speaker and the grammar of a 12 year old. But their conversational level is similar to a 2 or 3 year old. This is considered a success. It is even worse in other fields.

        But an even bigger problem is the misunderstanding of the role of the teacher. We've got this absurdly naive idea that a teacher learns something and then somehow puts that knowledge into the heads of the students. This is so wrong headed that I barely know where to begin. Education depends on the students discovering information and using it fluently. A teacher's role is not to furnish the information, but to help the student learn how to explore. A teacher provides the context in which the student is able to be fluent.

        But as teachers we are given a curriculum that consists of a list of facts. We are told to present these facts to the students in a particular order. The order often precludes any ability to generate a meaningful context. We discipline the students so that they accept sitting quietly and passively receiving these facts. We forbid them from working together. Timmy doesn't know the answer to question #1. Bad Timmy. Yes I know Tom knows the answer. No, you may not ask Tom. You are only allowed to learn facts from the teacher and since you were daydreaming you're not allowed to know the answer. Then we test them on the material. And the stupid thing is, we don't expect them to know the answers. Hey, yeah... you're doing awesome if you completely forgot a fifth of everything you were supposed to know. That's an A! Of course, we also switch topics every 2 months and never go back to review the topic we covered 10 months ago. You're supposed to remember (even though even the good students only knew 80% of it in the first place). By the time you get to the end of the year, there is virtually nothing in all the material that every student knows (80%, 80%, 80%,...). So when we get to the next year we can't base it on the previous year's material. We have to go back and reteach everything again. :-P

        When people graduate they have this hodge podge of facts, incompletely remembered, hardly ever exercised in a meaningful context and forming a mostly random knowledge base. Fluency with the use of this information never occurred. It is also unlikely ever to occur because the students have been trained to simply shut up, listen to authority figures and regurgitate facts on command. Oh and that if you get 80% of the facts right, you're doing awesome (that 20% could never get anyone in trouble, right?)

        • by jd (1658)

          Oh, absolutely! Certain facts are useful as a foundation to a subject, but 99% of all facts taught aren't going to be memorized, are only going to end up being looked up in reference texts, and are therefore bleeding time that could be spent on comprehension, thought processing, research skills, transferable skills, logical processes and assorted forms of reasoning, etc.

          Language is particularly fun. For a long time, people honestly believed that you shouldn't teach multiple languages at the same time (it wo

        • But an even bigger problem is the misunderstanding of the role of the teacher. We've got this absurdly naive idea that a teacher learns something and then somehow puts that knowledge into the heads of the students. This is so wrong headed that I barely know where to begin. Education depends on the students discovering information and using it fluently. A teacher's role is not to furnish the information, but to help the student learn how to explore. A teacher provides the context in which the student is able to be fluent.

          Someone needs to put this on a plaque in every school.

        • by mounthood (993037)
          If the colleges were better, if they really had it, you would need to get the police at the gates to keep order in the inrushing multitude. See in college how we thwart the natural love of learning by leaving the natural method of teaching what each wishes to learn, and insisting that you shall learn what you have no taste or capacity for. The college, which should be a place of delightful labor, is made odious and unhealthy, and the young men are tempted to frivolous amusements to rally their jaded spirits
      • by gtall (79522)

        Yes Education is pitiful. However, you seem to have no idea how science these days must be done. I do a lot of work in logic. Logic really took off around Hilbert's time. Now we've had 100 years of logic development. Do you have any idea how much you need to learn just to get to the head of that field and make a contribution? Approximately the last 100 years of logic "innovation". You won't even be able to recognize an advance without learning what's been done before.

    • by steelfood (895457)

      I don't know if what Einstein said is exactly what he meant or how it's interpreted, and if it is, I don't know if it's entirely accurate.

      Revolutionary ideas don't come from years of study. One doesn't spend twenty years studying black holes just to figure out a way for them to not exist (some however, do hedge their bets by making wagers against themselves). Revolutionary ideas come from knowing only the abstractions, looking only at the data points, and then coming up with ideas as to why it is the way it

    • by Ihmhi (1206036)

      I was thinking this exactly. We've answered most of the "easier" problems (relatively speaking, pun absolutely fucking intended). I mean, ask your average 30-year-old school kid to explain something like F=MA and they can probably do it. Ask them to explain (even at its most basic level) Quantum Mechanics and that number drops considerably. Now ask them to explain the shit the *really* smart people have already answered, especially recently... that number is going to shrink to hundreds or even dozens worldw

      • I'll switch fields but we didn't say we had to limit ourselves to physics!

        In Buddhism, it's a fairly tough religion because having been one of the most lenient in doctrine, you can't just hand someone the Bible/Koran/Book of Mormon and call it a day. There are easily five major branches with seven sub-branches each, and five sub-sub-branches below that! (Inside joke included in that last sentence! Think Haiku! But then that's how the Eastern mind thinks too - in Layers!)

        So I recall reading a book on Tibetan

      • by tehcyder (746570)

        ask your average 30-year-old school kid

        My God you must take education seriously where you live.

    • by necro81 (917438)

      Science requires lots of hard work to make major discoveries.

      Not only that, but many of the major discoveries of the past few decades require sophistocated equipment - some of which simply doesn't exist when a particular project gets started. I'm thinking here of spacecraft, large experiments like particle accelerators, envelope-pushing lasers, sensitive assay equipment useful for DNA sequencing or trace element detection, and tremendous computing power. It takes a long time to design, build, and test t

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday November 08, 2011 @07:54PM (#37992998)

    Science is no longer one-man ventures, secluded in a room with blackboards and lots of paper; science is done by large teams spanning multiple universities and countries; it takes a while to become the Head Honcho of one of these groups. The actual Stroke of Genius might happen to be with a pre-30 team member, and usually quite a number of these strokes happen, but Head Honcho will get the ultimate credit.

    • by BluBrick (1924)
      The cynic in me agrees with your assessment - and everyone else seems to have gone quiet.
    • by slashdot_commentator (444053) on Wednesday November 09, 2011 @01:17AM (#37995750) Journal

      You're spot on, except you're not as cynical and bitter.

      As Joseph Campbell once observed, civilizations are a collection of myths which everyone in the society accepts/believes. We were raised thinking that science worked like Star Trek, and that blinding genius was what made for great scientific breakthroughs. But what is "accepted" scientific fact? Its basically well designed, reproducible experiments that demonstrate the validity of a theory which is eventually accepted BY a body of academic peers supposedly trained to conduct and recognize that standards were met and valid. Guess what? No body of peers (mediocrities), no scientific validation.

      Science always was, and particularly today, a relentless, and excruciating labor of many millions of ants, making progress by each crumb of discovered knowledge. It is a social hive that eventually culminates in something significant and new. When it does, its the queen that gets all the credit, even though she spent all her time popping out worker drones. You cannot even hope to get credit in the science/history books unless you happened to be at the top of the pile at the time, with powerful friends to validate you as the "discoverer".

      What made "great" scientists recognized, in the previous century, was not mere genius or relentless work or even showmanship. The only ones that were noticed were the ones who realized the great collection of authorities in the field were dead wrong, and then had the guts and genius to prove they were wrong. They were cowboys like Einstein and Tesla. The days of the cowboys are gone. (And forget about working in a patent office part-time, while working on your breakthrough discovery. Then again, the pay and financial security of academicians/researchers are so bad, the next vanguard of scientists just may require a day job.)

      The last scientist I can think of who went maverick and made her mark was Barbara McClintock. She had to stand by her research for decades while it was dismissed by her peers, until they couldn't continue to look stupid and wrong. And who the hell here even knew who she was when I mentioned her? Think of all the people who died in the previous decades from peptic ulcers until an internist conclusively demonstrated that ulcers were induced by bacteria, and simple antibiotics would cure the condition. The bacteria theory for ulcers was around for decades, but guess what? The wrong body of peers were the deans of Internal Medicine and editors of prestigious journals at the time. There are probably many scientific discoveries unknown to us, merely because the first guy to prove it just didn't have the right juice, or some bureaucratic body had a financial interest in dismissing the findings.

      Assuming the study's conclusions are valid (and I don't believe anyone should take any studies' results for granted anymore), it only demonstrates that science has become more bureaucratic in the past decades; you need to go to the right schools, know the right people, and managed to get into the right "chairs" to be in position to get "credit" for a scientific endeavor. That takes time, which explains why "older" scientists are credited later in life today. This is not a good thing. Picture being Albert Pujols and never being "allowed" to play in the World Series because he wasn't on the roster of the Yankees, Red Sox, or Braves. In our case today, we are strangling our own advancement by our own bureaucracy (or societal pedigree).

      • Of course, there are fields with cowboys. Larry Page and Sergey Brin stand out as men who were not awarded PhDs, and had academia laugh at their BigTable database paper.

        They did it anyway.

        Of course, it was handy that they were in a field where you can just buy equipment from best buy, rather than needing to get machine hours from CERN.

        • Not trying to make a political point, but the market is an entirely different judge of value from academia. Mostly a useful one, as the case of Google highlights.

        • by tehcyder (746570)

          Of course, there are fields with cowboys. Larry Page and Sergey Brin stand out as men who were not awarded PhDs, and had academia laugh at their BigTable database paper.

          They did it anyway.

          Of course, it was handy that they were in a field where you can just buy equipment from best buy, rather than needing to get machine hours from CERN.

          Yes, it is a sure sign of scientific genius that you founded a highly profitable advertising company.

      • by naasking (94116)

        There are plenty of people making bold claims. Consider the doctors who are now trumpeting that fat intake has little to do with heart disease, and that carbs are really to blame. This overturns 40 years of medical advice, and there's considerable resistance to it.

        Also look at the resistance to using illegal drugs for clinical use. Ecstasy has been shown to considerably reduce postpartum depression, and marijuana is great for pain relief and anti-nauseant (for chemo patients). Look how long that took to get

        • by tehcyder (746570)

          Ecstasy has been shown to considerably reduce postpartum depression

          That has nothing to do with the fact that it is illegal to use as a recreational drug, for the very good reason that long term use produces brain damage.

          • by naasking (94116)

            That has nothing to do with the fact that it is illegal to use as a recreational drug, for the very good reason that long term use produces brain damage.

            Strawman. The danger of recreational use has nothing to do with the legal impediments of using drugs in a clinical setting, which this whole thread is about, ie. ideological impediments to scientific progress. Research of this sort was delayed for years for political reasons.

            Finally, the latest studies found no meaningful cognitive differences between MDMA [wiley.com]

      • You cannot even hope to get credit in the science/history books unless you happened to be at the top of the pile at the time, with powerful friends to validate you as the "discoverer".

        Counterexample: Niels Henrik Abel.

  • by erroneus (253617) on Tuesday November 08, 2011 @07:56PM (#37993038) Homepage

    Everything new that is discovered, learned, realized or developed comes in no small part from everything that came before it. In order to create something new, you more or less have to acquire a fair portion of all of the knowledge and understanding that came before it. As that body of knowledge and understanding grows, so too does the time it takes to acquire and digest it all.

    This problem will only get worse unless we learn to fight old age and the deterioration of the brain better.

    The human limits are quickly being realized and it is our own mortality.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      The breakthrough in the early 20th century was about discovering completely new branches of physics (quantum mechanics, relativity). Only makes sense that as the field matures, it's harder to make breakthrough discoveries.

      • by tsa (15680)

        I think that is one of the reasons young scientists made most of the discoveries in those days. Quantum mechanics was so new back then that it had to be invented, and you need a very flexible mind to be able to do that. Something older people like me just don't have.

    • by hedwards (940851)

      Yes and no, one of the challenging things about doing ground breaking work is that it isn't necessarily the case that understanding the past will help. Most times it does, most times it's a matter of continuing what others were studying and put a new twist on it.

      But, not always, it's relatively easy to fall into the theoretical trap and forget that the real world doesn't necessarily behave the way that one would expect. Reminds me of a while back when a group of physicists figured out that they could get a

    • by rolfwind (528248) on Tuesday November 08, 2011 @08:30PM (#37993352)

      Maybe it has more to do with 2 things:

      a) Younger people accept change faster. In the early 20th Century, Physics was fundamentally changing for the first time since Newton came onto the scene. It's often said that scientific revolutions are less the revolution part and more that acceptance comes as the older, unaccepting generations die out. Einstein himself was out of the game by quantum mechanics because he refuse to accept it.

      So maybe the previously young age has less to do with mental agility of age and more about locking yourself into a preconceived box. Of course, science can have only so many revolutions, and as it shifts to evolutions, experience and age will start winning out... until the next revolution.

      b) Younger people used to have less familial commitments. They often still do. Means more free time to devote to breakthroughs. But as the last century progress, people are definitely having less and less kids, and divorce is also on the rise - so older people may get the same benefits, time-wise....

      • by Raenex (947668)

        Einstein himself was out of the game by quantum mechanics because he refuse to accept it.

        Which is kind of ironic, because he was one of it's earliest founders. It's what he got his Nobel Prize for.

      • by wrook (134116)

        It's a single data point, I know, but I'm definitely getting slower as I get older. And it's not just a matter of locking my self in a conceptual box, or other commitments taking my time. My brain just doesn't function the same way it used to.

        4 1/2 years ago, I quit my job as a programmer, moved to Japan and started teaching English. I had pretty much had it with my previous lifestyle, so I literally gave everything away (apart from my house, which I sold) and kept only what would fit in a back pack. I

        • by rolfwind (528248)

          I heard the ability to learn language degrades quickly already after the age of 10 or so. Not sure if it's true. I noticed the best way to learn a language is to be immersed in it, and the internet is kinda double edged, because back 20+ years ago, someone could go to a foreign country and be truly isolated from their native language except for a book/magazine that would get old quickly. With the internet, I imagine people would be heavily tempted (or required) to keep referring back to their parent lang

        • by Terrasque (796014)

          I'm used to being thought of as being smart. I never had to work hard in high school. Even in university, I did well without having to work too hard.

          My biggest problem is that I forget things easily.

          Heh, I think you got the same brain I have :) Understanding comes easily, but can't remember anything.

    • Which is why we should be focusing on learning machines like Watson or a future HAL like computer. We're getting closer to developing tools that will make the big discoveries for us. Computers. The kind that will not only interpret data, but present us models of the Universe we never even thought of.

    • Another possible explanation is that groundbreaking science using state of the art technology now requires some serious financial support and infrastructure. We're talking about grants from the NSF or NIH, a lab, equipment, graduate students, postdocs... a senior scientist is more likely to have acquired the resources and built up the program to do groundbreaking work than a junior scientist. Take astronomy, for instance. Back in Galileo's day, you could just take a small telescope and point it at the moon
    • Everything new that is discovered, learned, realized or developed comes in no small part from everything that came before it.

      That is changing. In the 1800s, all learned men with a University education would know Greek and Latin, certain philosophers, certain writers, etc. and this was the common education that they all shared to base their extended learning on. Today, we specialize to such an extent that some science and engineering majors may only share two or three classes in common with other majors such as business, art, or education.

      Within engineering, there is the core curriculum of a dozen or so classes, then the branche

      • by Kjella (173770)

        If you should chance into an entirely new field, or, more likely, a fusion of two previously disparate fields, it is not necessary for you to have the sum of all knowledge of everything that has ever been known before in the related areas for you to contribute entirely new things to the world. It might help, more often, it seems like a waste of effort.

        Of course not, it's not like you have to know all physics to improve one sub-branch of physics either. On the positive side if there's n fields there n*(n-1) combination of fields so there's less chance someone has picked all the hanging low fruit, on the other hand you now have to understand two fields in some depth. Still, with an ever expanding body of knowledge it becomes more and more probable that's been done before too. Sure there's biology and chemistry but biochemistry has been an established cross

        • But if you're going to become another Einstein, well I don't really see it.

          I have a theory on Einstein, and I mean the man no disrespect because he obviously hit on some basic truths that "the establishment" was missing, and more to his credit, he published very little in the way of "misses," but, with all the billions of people, and all the millions of unusually intelligent people, and all the thousands of weird (non-conformist) exceptionally intelligent people, I think that a lot of Einsteins success was simply that he got a lucky, he happened to tie into a vision of the truth a

    • by wvmarle (1070040)

      I was thinking similar, but then in a different approach. Many great discoveries these days are teamwork, with dozens to thousands of scientists working on a single problem, everyone doing a little bit. And it's generally the head of that group that receives all the credit.

      Managing such an organisation isn't easy, and requires a lot of experience in both the scientific work and the management work. These scientists are probably more manager than that they are experimentalist, and naturally they are getting

      • by tehcyder (746570)

        Also I wouldn't be surprised if many of the scientists doing the grunt work (the actual experiments, the equipment design and construction, the calculations) are still the younger guys, doing their PhD or post-doc work

        Don't they have such things as lab technicians these days?

    • by naasking (94116)

      It will get better with computer-assisted search methods. See "universal induction".

  • by the Dragonweaver (460267) on Tuesday November 08, 2011 @08:06PM (#37993122) Homepage

    This doesn't surprise me in the least. Various stories have been done on the fact that not only are we living longer, we're healthier as we age. The nineteenth century in particular is rife with forty-somethings suffering from afflictions such as gout, the aftereffects of rickets, or severe arthritis as well as the travails of various malnutrition diseases. At the time Einstein made his quote, the examples presented to his awareness would primarily be those giants of the nineteenth century, as his contemporaries were yet to show their true glory.

    So imagine how hard it is to focus when you're dealing with continual pain, and you'll understand quite well that most scientists of the time had to make their contributions before the onset of age-related issues, or their concentration would suffer markedly.

    • by Toonol (1057698)
      Plus, we may be immature longer (as in playing games, being imaginative and flighty, etc.). That may extend our creative juices longer into old age... our relatively long adolescence compared to other mammals (particularly apes) is thought to be one component of our much greater intelligence.
  • Why are there no child prodigies in Physics (or Chemistry or Biology)?

    I cannot think of one in the past 100 years.

    Einstein breakthrough year was 1905 and he was 26.
    • by hedwards (940851)

      They still exist, they just don't have the kind of access to lab equipment that would permit them to achieve much of anything until they're adults. You'll always have a few children that are ready for highschool or college physics while still in elementary school, but you're not necessarily always going to have an intersection between them and the population of physicists with access to lab equipment and the means of getting published.

    • by blair1q (305137)

      Physics, unlike, say, making noises, isn't an innate behavior.

      It's not even as innate as math, which is logical thinking in symbolic code.

      Physics requires moving beyond manipulating symbols and into understanding physical processes, few of which are even visible without massive equipment. Just finding something to innovate takes experience with an ever-increasing breadth of data sources.

      And the premise for this whole discussion is kinda wrong. Science is bursty. There was a rapid movement in the 1600s an

    • by artor3 (1344997)

      There are still prodigies (I know one myself), but they run into other problems. First of all, there's more stuff to learn before you can start making contributions. You know the quote about standing on the shoulders of giants. What they don't tell you is that first you need to climb those shoulders, and they get taller every years.

      More important though, is the fact that science doesn't pay. You can make a lot more money with a lot less effort going into finance, or business, or even engineering. I had

  • I think there is a fundamental bias when measuring the age of best work with the proposed metric, i.e. measuring when the work for which a Nobel was awarded was originally published.

    Nobel prizes are awarded only to living physicists (and that's why Einstein never got one for relativity, he died too soon). So, only the work done early in life can lead to a Nobel prize, since it needs to be revolutionary to be worth of the prize, it needs to be settled so it will not be controversial, and revolutionary ideas

    • I don't think life expectancy has changed meaningfully for well educated professionals in the last century.

      My take: let's plot median age of greatest accomplishment vs. date of birth. On the same plot, show median life expectancy vs. date of birth. Where they cross, innovation by individual contributors will go through a second order phase transition and become increasingly hampered by biology and the complexity required to contribute to modern science.

      PS - I know this is a wild oversimplification.

    • Erm, I'm not sure about your explanation for why Einstein never got a Nobel prize for relativity. His theory of GR was published in 1915, he won the Nobel in 1921, but the famous eclipse experiment (which was the first novel experimental validation of GR) was in 1919. He got the prize for the photoelectric effect (which, along with Brownian motion and SR, was published in 1905), and he died in 1955. That's a 32-year gap, and Einstein got quite famous for relativity well before his death. I'm quite sure the

  • I'll take my Nobel Prize money in gold bars, thanks.

  • Well (Score:4, Insightful)

    by ShooterNeo (555040) on Tuesday November 08, 2011 @08:22PM (#37993274)

    Here's a simple and reasonable explanation for this shift.

    The reason for young male scientists making their big breakthroughs before age 30 probably is caused by hormonal levels (they work extremely hard to create a novel solution to a problem in order to attract a mate) and possibly some brain aging. The brain is most likely a bit more plastic and higher performance between age 20 and 30 than it is between age 40 and 50.

    HOWEVER, what has happened is that a stroke of brilliance is no longer sufficient. All the easy pickings in physics have already been found. Now, the significant discoveries are much more complex endeavors, requiring far more knowledge and experience before someone could even be in a situation to make one. Just like how major inventions can't really happen in garages anymore. (sure, you can hack something together in a garage with Arduino boards...but you won't have made anything that hasn't already been prototyped in lots of places elsewhere) Contrast the present day with, say, the Wright Brothers building a powered aircraft with only limited resources. Today to make spacecraft able to take a man to Mars you'd need the resources of entire country.

    So, yes, I think that physicists that age probably become less effective due to aging, but due to more knowledge and experience and resources they became able to make these big discoveries AT ALL.

  • by Master Moose (1243274) on Tuesday November 08, 2011 @08:24PM (#37993288) Homepage

    At 33 my laziness was justified in "past my prime", but typical as with everything, the goal posts are moved on me.

  • Takes longer to accumulate enough knowledge to leverage it into something new.

  • by oobayly (1056050) on Tuesday November 08, 2011 @08:31PM (#37993358)

    Einstein was working in hex.

  • by Jeff1946 (944062) on Tuesday November 08, 2011 @08:31PM (#37993360) Journal

    John Fenn won the Nobel prize in chemistry for work he did in his 60's.

  • by Godskitchen (1017786) on Tuesday November 08, 2011 @08:42PM (#37993462)
    Einstein was obviously a smart guy but that doesn't mean everything he said is fact. In fact, I think blanket statements like the one quoted in the article are patently absurd. People can accomplish great things at any age. Second, I think the argument that has been mentioned a few times already, regarding the assertion that the "low-hanging fruit" of science has already been discovered, thus making any significant leaps more difficult, is baloney. One hundred years ago I'm sure they were saying the same thing.
    • regarding the assertion that the "low-hanging fruit" of science has already been discovered, thus making any significant leaps more difficult, is baloney. One hundred years ago I'm sure they were saying the same thing.

      It would be really cool if you could find a quote or two backing that up.

      • I think a good classics scholar could find something said by a Roman about everything having been discovered. Not me though, I can't remember the quote.

    • Second, I think the argument that has been mentioned a few times already, regarding the assertion that the "low-hanging fruit" of science has already been discovered, thus making any significant leaps more difficult, is baloney. One hundred years ago I'm sure they were saying the same thing.

      Well the guy at the Patent Office did anyway.

      I agree, low hanging fruit? Relativity was not low hanging fruit, and it was entirely a mental exercise AFAIK for those who blamed difference in experimental apparatus require

  • by HtR (240250) on Tuesday November 08, 2011 @10:12PM (#37994398)

    I know that it has to be later in life, since I'm already 46, and I haven't even had mine yet.

  • by PPH (736903) on Tuesday November 08, 2011 @10:54PM (#37994818)

    ... my productive time has been consumed keeping you kids off my lawn.

  • Off Topic-- Dirac (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Takionbrst (1772396) on Tuesday November 08, 2011 @11:42PM (#37995190)

    FTA "[...] people like Einstein and Paul Dirac (who predicted the existence of antimatter )"

    It's so strange that they have to explain who Dirac is. I'm a student in a top high energy physics department, and the man's name is literally everywhere. He build quantum field theory from the ground up, damn near by himself. He's definitely a demigod within the community.

    When I was in highschool I read (in Scientific American?) an article about Dirac, and it portrayed him as something of an under appreciated genius, that somehow he managed to escape the public eye. I guess this really is true.

    There's this huge disconnect between who the layman idolizes (Einstein, Bohr, Hawking etc.) and who the theorists idolize (t'Hooft, Yang, Wilson, etc. though of course we do idolize the other guys as well).

  • by kangsterizer (1698322) on Wednesday November 09, 2011 @02:58AM (#37996194)

    As we all know Einstein can't be wrong, and can't be wronged in the future either.
    But the Illuminaties figured that most physicists would stop working after their 30s since they were doomed to fail and not discover anything new.
    Therefore, the new age is 48. If that's not enough to get those lazy bastards to work, it'll be pushed back again later.

  • by dave87656 (1179347) on Wednesday November 09, 2011 @03:05AM (#37996224)

    I think Einsteins point was that the really truly great strokes of genius will happen before 30. Sure many physicists will peak later but they won't be the ones developing a relativity theory.

  • Joseph Fourier [wikipedia.org] made a scientific breakthrough quite late in his life (ca. 1820). We wouldn't be where we are today without his theories.
  • by robbo (4388) <(ten.armis) (ta) (todhsals)> on Wednesday November 09, 2011 @03:49AM (#37996404)

    In the absence of paradigm-shifting results, Nobel reduces to a lifetime achievement award.

  • by cpotoso (606303) on Wednesday November 09, 2011 @04:10AM (#37996490) Journal
    I teach graduate level quantum mechanics in a research university. Some of the problems one solves for homework would have landed you a Nobel prize 80 years ago. It is harder now.
  • To actually be able to figure out how to get some to pay them to research such stuff. I bow to the masters of the truly useless info.
  • That sounds plausible to me.

    The world is more complex today and it takes longer compared to the old times to adjust yourself and find out what you want to do and focus on in your life. I'm in my early 40ies and it's just in recent years that I'm getting a feeling of me having a relatively solid grip on my life and arranging things for the long term. That does include taking into account that our world today is heading fast-forward into a Type A William Gibson/Neal Stephenson Cyberpunk society with the accor

  • I guess there is still hope that I might some day become a great physicist.
    Woot Woot.....

    Although I might need to start studying now if I want to get my diploma on time...

  • There is a natural progression to a life. Early years are spent "getting up to speed". Middle years are spent doing stuff. Later years are spent reflecting more deeply on a few "pet areas" while also teaching those of the next generations who care to listen to old farts.

    Debating what constitutes the first, second and third segments is pointless.

    FWIW I made "discoveries" while in school (one was realizing that it was faster to do subtraction from left to right and not vice-a-versa). This will reside

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