Catch up on stories from the past week (and beyond) at the Slashdot story archive


Forgot your password?
Check out the new SourceForge HTML5 internet speed test! No Flash necessary and runs on all devices. ×

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

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."
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

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

Comments Filter:
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday November 08, 2011 @06:53PM (#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.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday November 08, 2011 @06:54PM (#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 erroneus ( 253617 ) on Tuesday November 08, 2011 @06:56PM (#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.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday November 08, 2011 @07:00PM (#37993074)

    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 the Dragonweaver ( 460267 ) on Tuesday November 08, 2011 @07:06PM (#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.

  • Well (Score:4, Insightful)

    by ShooterNeo ( 555040 ) on Tuesday November 08, 2011 @07:22PM (#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 hedwards ( 940851 ) on Tuesday November 08, 2011 @07:23PM (#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.

  • by Godskitchen ( 1017786 ) on Tuesday November 08, 2011 @07:42PM (#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.
  • by jd ( 1658 ) <[moc.oohay] [ta] [kapimi]> on Tuesday November 08, 2011 @08:06PM (#37993648) Homepage Journal

    Yes and no. There's no more low-hanging fruit, sure, but let's examine the case of Ruth Lawrence []. 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 [] 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 @08:54PM (#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 JoeMerchant ( 803320 ) on Tuesday November 08, 2011 @10:06PM (#37994914)

    Maybe even flying cars!

    We already have flying cars, but maybe only 1K civilians choose to afford to use them on a regular basis: they're called helicopters, and if people really wanted them in the form of cars badly enough (like Moller [] et. al.), they could do that, but like the helicopters, it's a question of economics and socio-political reality, not science, technology or invention per-se.

  • by rednip ( 186217 ) on Tuesday November 08, 2011 @10:37PM (#37995152) Journal
    Ah, the libertarian 'starve the farmer so that he'll work harder' approach to labor relations.
  • Off Topic-- Dirac (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Takionbrst ( 1772396 ) on Tuesday November 08, 2011 @10:42PM (#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 wrook ( 134116 ) on Wednesday November 09, 2011 @12:10AM (#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 slashdot_commentator ( 444053 ) on Wednesday November 09, 2011 @12:17AM (#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).

Maybe Computer Science should be in the College of Theology. -- R. S. Barton