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!