Who Says Scientists Peak By Age 50?
Some are doing the best work of their lives later in life
In his 1940 essay, ‘A Mathematician’s Apology,’ G.H. Hardy asserted that mathematics was “a young man’s game” and that mathematical ability declined as one got older. By extension, conventional wisdom would have you believe that the same holds true for science — primarily the so-called ‘hard’ sciences like chemistry, biology and especially physics.
It’s generally thought that scientists and mathematicians do their best work in their younger years, certainly not after 50.
But is that really true? Experts increasingly answer with a resounding "No," pointing to changes in those professions.
Breakthroughs After Age 50
Truth is, some landmark scientific work has been done by people older than 50 for centuries.
Consider Benjamin Franklin. After 50 he charted and named the Gulf Stream and invented the glass harmonica.
Or take theoretical physicist John Wheeler, who made key contributions to theoretical physics his entire life and worked on The Manhattan Project during World War II.
In 1967, while in his mid-50s, he helped devise the ‘Wheeler-DeWitt equation,’ an important mathematical attempt to combine general relativity with quantum mechanics. In his 60s, Wheeler co-wrote one of the most influential textbooks on general relativity. In 1990, when Wheeler was in his late 70s, he developed the theory that information is a fundamental component of the universe (which he called “it from bit”).
What does it take for a scientist to make important contributions well past what many would think of as his or her prime? Is there an optimal age for making the largest impact on one’s field? Does age really even matter, ultimately?
What's Changed for Scientists
In fact, there is some indication that age really does matter, but not in the way you might think. While it once seemed that mathematicians and scientists made their big contributions early in their 20s, 30s and 40s, that isn’t necessarily the case anymore.
Of course, it is still deemed important for scientists to publish, and have their papers cited, as early in their career as possible. But these days, they might come up with their most interesting or creative contributions to their fields at any age.
In the 21 century, scientists in their 50s, 60s, 70s and even 80s aren’t written off anymore as having their best years behind them.
Leonard Susskind, the theoretical physicist who came up with the concept of string theory, says the “standard wisdom” about age and scientists held true for theoretical physics for a long time. Susskind cites an analogy to athletics — that, in order to make a major contribution, you needed the “mental agility” of youth without the “baggage that burdens with experience.”
He adds: “Newton, Einstein, Dirac, Heisenberg, Bohr, Pauli, Schwinger and Gell-Mann were all largely ‘spent forces’ by their mid-40s or earlier. They did their great work in their early 20's. [Physicist Richard] Feynman did his most important work by the age of 30, but continued on till about 50. [Physicist Erwin] Schrodinger was considered an unusual anomaly for having discovered his [quantum mechanics] equation at 39.”
But, Susskind adds, “Today it's very different. Here is a list of the people [over 50] who are dominating the idea landscape in my own field: Polchinski, Dimopoulos, Witten, Seiberg, Shenker, Strominger, Linde, Kallosh. There are younger people who are making important contributions, but so far not at the same level as these codgers.”
Susskind doesn’t think there is a single reason for this trend.
“What I can tell you for sure is that it has nothing to do with either funding or political influence,” he says. “I also don't think it has to do with the attraction of Wall Street or computer science. More likely, it is just the modern tendency toward longevity and good health into an older age.”
The Benefits of Age in Math
Ken Ono, professor of mathematics at Emory University who specializes in number theory, thinks that things are changing in his field, too.
“It is becoming much more difficult to master cutting edge mathematics at a young age,” says Ono. “In the 1960s, every mathematician could read the top journals. Now, many mathematicians would have a difficult time reading 10 percent of the papers in top journals.”
Today, scientists and mathematicians over 50 can look forward to the freedom to pursue their research in areas that truly excite them as they get older.
Consider these renowned scientists who are still making important contributions: David Attenborough (88), James Watson (86), Noam Chomsky (85), E.O. Wilson (85), Roger Penrose (82), Jane Goodall (80), Richard Dawkins (73), Stephen Hawking (72) and Neil deGrasse Tyson (55).
As if to put to rest the idea that scientists over 50 aren’t likely to make a major contribution to their field, the following was a reply from J.E.N. Veron (the world’s foremost expert on coral reefs) to an email requesting a quote for this article: “Despite being nearly 70, I work 60-hour weeks. So, with apologies…”