Ah’m no’ dead yet!

Sweet. Maybe I’m not too damn old after all. This National Center for Policy Analysis report stands in sharp contrast to (what seems to me) the constant flood of articles reminding me that Einstein was only 26 when he set physics on its collective ear, Gauss was 24 when he did much the same to mathematics, and so on. And on and on and bloody on. However:

The author analyzed data on Nobel Prize winners in Physics,
Chemistry, Medicine, and Economics over the past 100 years and on
outstanding technological innovations over the same period. He finds

  • There is large variation in age — 42 percent of innovations
    came about when their creators were in their 30s, while 40 percent
    occurred when the inventors were in their 40s, and 13 percent appeared
    when the inventors were over 50.
  • In contrast, there were no great achievements produced by
    innovators before the age of 19 and only 7 percent were produced by
    innovators younger than 27.
  • Controlling for nationality and field of study, the average age of
    a great innovator increased eight years over the past century.

Looking closer at the data, the author finds that:

  • The upward trend for productive innovators is a result of a
    substantial decline in the innovative output of younger individuals.
  • There appears to be no relative increase in innovation potential of those beyond middle age.

The article suggests that the average age is increasing, because the
amount of knowledge has increased. Since thinkers must increasingly
invest in acquiring intellectual capital and the accumulation of
knowledge, the average age of innovation increases as well.

Any study which undermines the idea that “if you haven’t thunk it by the time you’re 30 you’re not going to” is a friend of mine.

Update: Rob Carlson points to this article, which is short and well worth your time if you work with your brain. I don’t think I agree with Rob that the article “take(s) seriously the myth that mathematicians and physicists do all their best work before the age of 40” — in fact, I think the author, Ed Tenner, takes rather the opposite position. He does point out that many late-life intellectual achievers switched fields, moving away from the risk of stagnating among the ideas that brought them early prominence. This idea has about as much currency as the “dead by 40” one, but has a much more obvious mechanism behind it: one will always be tempted to cling to tools that have worked well, and success breeds paperwork. In any case, Rob is my pal: “most of the experimental scientists and engineers I know, including the majority of biologists I’ve run into, just get better with age.” Damn straight!

Business as usual: Rosalind Franklin gets left out again.

Dear Mr Edward:
as a molecular biologist and an art lover, I am always pleased to see science informing art, and art informing the public about science. Your online exhibit, “Irradiance”, is a wonderful example which brings the beauty and mystery of life on the smallest scales to a great many people who might otherwise never notice it. I am able to communicate something of the way I feel about my work by simply pointing to your art — for which my thanks.
In light of the power of such art to shape public attitudes toward science, I write to ask you to consider a small change to the introductory text of your exhibit. You have included an explanatory paragraph regarding X-ray crystallography and a somewhat oblique reference to the infamous treatment of Franklin by Wilkins et al., so you are obviously familiar with Franklin’s indispensable contribution to the discovery of the structure of DNA. It is somewhat surprising to me, then, that Franklin’s name appears only in the titles of two of the “further reading” references you provide.
I think it likely, if unfortunate, that few people who see “Irradiance” will read the references. That being so, you miss an opportunity to put Franklin’s name where it belongs: right alongside Watson and Crick in the public perception. I wonder if you would consider adjusting a sentence in your opening paragraph so as to include Rosalind Franklin’s name? I believe that for you to do this would go some considerable way towards redressing that fifty-year-old injustice.
Bill Hooker.
P.S. I should have pointed out — I did notice that the text accompanying “Spiral II” includes a clear and concise explanation of Franklin’s role. What I am suggesting is that her name also be visible on the very first page, to promote a sort of “brand recognition” if you will. –B.

The gene formerly known as POKEMON; or, Don’t you dickheads have anything better to do?

Note the new category. Via Waxy’s links: fucking Nintendo (who make worthless games) has threatened to sue researchers at Sloan-Kettering (who are trying to cure cancer) to get them not to nickname a gene “pokemon”:

Researchers at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York have changed the name of a gene found to cause cancer, due to legal pressure from Nintendo’s Pok

Letter to the Editors

The editors of the American Journal of Bioethics have a weblog, as anyone who has looked through my blogroll will know. Pace Mark Kleiman1, bioethics is a vital field in all senses of the word. I take issue, however, with a recent comment by regular guest bloggers David Magnus and Arthur Kaplan — a comment made not on the blog but in a newspaper column, and reprinted on the blog. If you haven’t been following the Korean stem cell fiasco, this is an excellent primer.

Sirs —
in a recent opinion piece to which you linked in your blog, your colleagues David Magnus and Arthur Kaplan make the following comment:

When trust breaks down, the very possibility of science is threatened. That is why so much time is spent these days emphasizing to young scientists the importance of integrity.

I want to ask: emphasized by whom? Where? At no institute or school in which I have worked or studied (six, in two different countries) has ethics been more than an afterthought, a five-minute intranet “test” tacked on to requirements to satisfy the pesterers on the IRB. I have had mentors of great personal integrity, from whom I have learned, I hope, to conduct my own research in a manner deserving of the trust Magnus and Kaplan speak of; but I have also seen PIs work drunk and skirt the edges of data fabrication on a more or less routine basis. Martinson et al. held no surprises for me, as I am sure it did not for you or for Magnus and Kaplan. Science is just as “high-pressure, high-stakes and highly competitive” elsewhere as it is in Korea, and we can expect more scandals unless, as Magnus and Kaplan themselves put it, “training in ethical standards [is] seen as central to the enterprise of science, rather than burdensome make-work.” To do this will indeed entail spending a great deal of time emphasizing to young scientists the importance of integrity. I would rather that high-profile ethicists such as Magnus and Kaplan not give the impression that this work is underway when, in my experience, it has barely begun across much of the scientific community.

1 The comments on bioethics in this entry were uninformed, ill-mannered and, it must be added, uncharacteristic. Despite being called on it by hilzoy, I have yet to see Mr Kleiman attempt to justify his hostility. I got a server error trying to ping his entry, so I’ve emailed him.

help a sister out

If you’re reading this you should already be reading 3 Quarks Daily on a regular basis. If you’re not, do yourself a favour and start. Whether you’ve been reading or not, Abbas has a request that I’d also like you to consider:

There is a very vivacious and intelligent young woman (she is 22) that my wife and I are friends with. She moved to New York City from a small town in the south to pursue her ambition to be a painter and illustrator. She had exhibited prodigious artistic talent from an early age, and after finding a job as a waitress and an apartment in the city, had no trouble gaining admission to an art program in a New York City college by showing her portfolio. She has been going to school full-time, and also working as a waitress full-time, and she has done tremendously well in school. […]
The last time my wife and I saw her, she was in tears because she had just received a letter from her college saying that her financial aid is being cut off because she made $1,000 too much in income to qualify. Now, it turns out that it would have been better for her all around if she had sat on her ass and collected welfare the whole year, since she would then be eligible for aid. As it is, she reported her income absolutely honestly, and now she cannot afford to attend school in the spring. She is from a modest family and they cannot help her.
I asked her how much her tuition is, and she cutely told me a rather exact amount: $1,533.85 (I have a good memory for numbers). I decided I would try to help her, but cannot do this by myself. My wife Margit and I have made a contribution of $200 to a fund to help her continue with college in spring. I ask you to give what you can to make up the difference.

A student working their way through higher education is a cause very near to my heart, not least because my parents generously funded, by gift and loan, my entire schooling. I had it easy, and since one cannot pay back generosity or family support in the way one repays a loan, I feel obliged to “pay it forward”. On top of that, the student in question is being penalized for honesty — oy. It’s a situation tailor-made to get me to put my hand in my pocket, and I hope it will jar a few bucks loose from your Christmas stashes as well, O my tens of readers.
As Abbas points out, he has enough readers that $5, or $1, or whatever you can spare, will be plenty. Small donations add up fast on the web; that’s one of its greatest strengths.
At the time of writing, the appeal was up to $540. Just five bucks per from another 200 readers and an honest and deserving student can stay in school. Be a mensch.
Update: Amount collected as of 12/13/05: $1,115. Nearly there!
Update:Amount collected as of 12/18/05: $1,412.85 So close!
Update:Target met as of 051219. If you contributed, the student in question has thanked you very prettily here, and some of her latest work can be seen in the same post. Well done all, especially Abbas.

quelle surprise

Buried toward the end of this story about “the first real, honest-to-God, horny-making, body-shaking, equal-opportunity aphrodisiac”, PT-141, is a little piece of behavioural research that I haven’t seen mentioned anywhere else:

When Jim Pfaus tested PT-141 on his female rats, he based his experimental design partly on the work of Raul Paredes, a fellow rat sexologist testing the effects of something more elusive: personal autonomy. That


Hein.JPG It was worth adding delicious/poetry to my rss feeds just to be reminded of Piet Hein‘s Grooks. Picture swiped from here, where you can read a good brief biography.
There is
one art,
no more,
no less:
to do
all things
with art-
A definition
One who, consuming midnight oil
in studies diligent and slow,
teaches himself, with painful toil,
the things that other people know.
The road to wisdom? — Well, it’s plain
and simple to express:
           and err
           and err again
           but less
           and less
           and less.
Admonitory grook addressed to youth.
The human spirit sublimates
the impulses it thwarts;
a healthy sex life mitigates
the lust for other sports.
Nature, it seems, is the popular name
for milliards and milliards and milliards
of particles playing their infinite game
of billiards and billiards and billiards.