Albert Einstein was a 26-year-old working in a patent office when he came up with the idea of special relativity in 1905, which would ultimately change the way we think about the world. Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli and Paul Dirac all made fundamental contributions to the sciences under 30, too.
But that doesn't mean all game-changing achievements in the sciences happen to the young. On the contrary: A new study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that, especially post-1905, great scientific works are produced by people who are older, even beyond age 40.
"We see that overall, the probability of doing Nobel-prize winning work before the age of 30 is ultimately declining in a lot of fields," said Benjamin Jones, lead study author and associate professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management.
Jones and Weinberg researched the Nobel Prize winners in physics, chemistry, and medicine between the years 1875 and 2008, and determined when each of them had achieved the things that would ultimately earn them this honor. Back before 1905, 69% of chemists, 63% of medical scientists and 60% of physicists completed prize-winning work before age 40. By the year 2000, it became very rare to have such a breakthrough before age 30 or 40 in these fields.
Even more interesting, it seems that the achievers tend to be younger when there's less known about a particular field.
For example, physics had a revolution with the advent of quantum mechanics in 1925; Heisenberg, credited with creating this field, was only in his mid-20s at that time. Heisenberg won the 1932 Nobel Prize in Physics, and put forth mind-bending ideas about how a particle can appear as a wave and vice versa. Regarding matter on the tiniest scales possible, much of classical physics was thrown out the window. And this was an exception in the trend toward older achievers in the sciences in the 20th century.
Jones and collaborator Bruce Weinberg looked at the citations of various scientific papers to corroborate the idea that as a field moves toward citing only recent studies, there's less foundational knowledge that one has to learn before having a true creative breakthrough in that field.
"You can be young in the sense of young in time, or you can be suddenly young again if there’s a tumult in the field, a revolution that’s happening," Jones said.
In medicine and chemistry, on the other hand, there was not such an obvious fundamental change in thinking that suddenly changed the basic assumptions about those sciences in the 20th century. Jones and Weinberg believe that's part of the reason why there's been a consistently steady decline in Nobel laureates in those fields coming up with their prize-winning works at very young ages. As the century went on, young scientists had to spend a lot of time learning about everything that had come before them, and building off of that knowledge.
There is also a distinction between conceptual and experimental work when it comes to the ages of these bright minds, the study authors said. Theoretical work seems to favor younger scholars, while experimental achievements are more common among older people. That's because a larger base of knowledge and experience is required to do this important inductive work, Jones and Weinberg say.
The study authors did not look at gender distinctions among the Nobel Laureates, partly because there are so few female Nobel winners in the sciences that it's hard to draw meaningful associations about age. But it could be a question for future study, Jones said.
Bottom line: Einstein once said, "A person who has not made his great contribution to science before the age of thirty will never do so." He may have changed the world at age 26, but plenty of others are doing it much later.