I’ve got a new article in the Wall Street Journal on the complex relationship between age and scientific creativity:
When James Watson was 24 years old, he spent more time thinking about women than work, according to his memoir “Genes, Girls and Gamow.” His hair was unkempt and his letters home were full of references to “wine-soaked lunches.” But when Mr. Watson wasn’t chasing after girls, he was hard at work in his Cambridge lab, trying to puzzle out the structure of DNA. In 1953, when Mr. Watson was only 25, he co-wrote one of the most important scientific papers of all time.
Scientific revolutions are often led by the youngest scientists. Isaac Newton was 23 when he began inventing calculus; Albert Einstein published several of his most important papers at the tender age of 26; Werner Heisenberg pioneered quantum mechanics in his mid-20s. At the time, these men were all inexperienced and immature, and yet they managed to transform their fields.
Youth and creativity have long been interwoven; as Samuel Johnson once said, “Youth is the time of enterprise and hope.” Unburdened by old habits and prejudices, a mind in fresh bloom is poised to see the world anew and come up with fresh innovations–solutions to problems that have sometimes eluded others for ages.
Such innovation could be at risk in modern science, as the number of successful young scientists dramatically shrinks.
In 1980, the largest share of grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) went to scientists in their late 30s. By 2006 the curve had been shifted sharply to the right, with the highest proportion of grants going to scientists in their late 40s. This shift came largely at the expense of America’s youngest scientists. In 1980, researchers between the ages of 31 and 33 received nearly 10% of all grants; by 2006 they accounted for approximately 1%. And the trend shows no signs of abating: In 2007, the most recent year available, there were more grants to 70-year-old researchers than there were to researchers under the age of 30.
I then argue that this graying trend has implications for scientific innovation:
In recent years, psychologists have begun studying the relationship between age and creativity, trying to understand how increasing experience affects the way we think.
One theory suggests that creative output obeys a predictable pattern over time, which is best represented by an “inverted U curve.” The shape of the curve captures the steep rise and slow fall of individual creativity, with performance peaking after a few years of work before it starts to decline in middle age. By the time scientists are eminent and well-funded–this tends to happen in the final years of their careers–they are probably long past their creative prime.
The inverted U curve was first documented by Adolphe Quetelet, a 19th-century French mathematician and sociologist. Mr. Quetelet’s study was simple: He plotted the number of plays produced by French and English playwrights over the course of their life spans. He soon discovered that creativity had a sweet spot, which seemed to always occur between the ages of 25 and 50. (The data neatly confirmed Mr. Quetelet’s own life story, as he was 39 when his magnum opus was published.)
Dean Simonton, a psychologist at the University of California, Davis, has spent the last several decades expanding on Mr. Quetelet’s approach, sifting through vast amounts of historical data in search of underlying patterns. For instance, Mr. Simonton has shown that physicists tend to make their first important discovery in their late 20s, which is why it’s a common joke within the field that if a physicist hasn’t done Nobel-worthy work before getting married, then he or she might as well quit. According to Mr. Simonton, the only field that peaks before physics is poetry.
Why are young physicists and poets more creative? Mr. Simonton argues that they benefit, at least in part, from their willingness to embrace novelty and surprise. Because they haven’t become “encultured,” or weighted down with too much conventional wisdom, they’re more willing to rebel against the status quo. After a few years in the academy, however, “creators start to repeat themselves, so that it becomes more of the same-old, same-old,” Mr. Simonton says.
You can read the whole thing here.