Breakthrough scientific discoveries no longer dominated by the very young: study

Nov 07, 2011 by Jeff Grabmeier

Scientists under the age of 40 used to make the majority of significant breakthroughs in chemistry, physics and medicine – but that is no longer the case, new research suggests.

A study of Nobel Laureates from 1901 to 2008 in these three fields examined the age at which did their prize-winning work.

Results showed that before 1905, about two-thirds of winners in all three fields did their prize-winning work before age 40, and about 20 percent did it before age 30.

But by 2000, great achievements before age 30 nearly never occurred in any of the three fields. In , great achievements by age 40 only occurred in 19 percent of cases by the year 2000, and in chemistry, it nearly never occurred.

"The image of the brilliant young scientist who makes critical breakthroughs in science is increasingly outdated, at least in these three disciplines," said Bruce Weinberg, co-author of the study and professor of economics at Ohio State University.

"Today, the average age at which physicists do their Nobel Prize winning work is 48. Very little breakthrough work is done by physicists under 30."

Weinberg conducted the study with Benjamin Jones of Northwestern University. Their results appear in the online early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers believe the reasons for the age shift have to do with both the type of breakthroughs honored – theoretical or experimental – and how long it takes scientists to receive their training and begin their career.

Earlier work on creativity in the sciences has emphasized differences in the ages when creativity peaks across various scientific disciplines, assuming that those differences were stable over time, Weinberg said.

But this new work suggests that the differences in the age of creativity peaks between fields like chemistry and physics are actually quite small compared to the differences in creativity peaks between time periods within each discipline.

For the study, the researchers analyzed the complete set of 525 Nobel Prizes given between 1901 and 2008 in the three fields – 182 in physics, 153 in chemistry and 190 in medicine. Through extensive historical and biographical analysis, they determined the ages at which each Nobel Prize winner produced their prize-winning work.

In general, there was an aging pattern over the 20th century as to when scientists made their breakthrough discoveries, although there were differences between the three fields.

The most interesting case is physics, Weinberg said. In physics, there was an especially notable increase in the early 20th century in the frequency of young scientists producing prize-winning work. The proportion of physicists who did their prize-winning work by age 30 peaked in 1923 at 31 percent. Those that did their best work by age 40 peaked in 1934 at 78 percent. The proportion of physicists under age 30 or 40 producing Nobel Prize-winning work then declined throughout the rest of the century.

The shift in physics stands out from chemistry, where young achievement declined more consistently through the 20th century, and , which shows a decline in achievement before age 30, but otherwise no substantial trends.

The trend toward youthful achievement in early 20th century physics occurred during the same time as the development of quantum mechanics, Weinberg noted. That may help explain why young scientists were more successful then.

"Young physicists at the time were part of a revolution in theoretical knowledge. The development of quantum mechanics meant that older theories and knowledge was less relevant to what they were doing," Weinberg said.

"It may be that young scientists did better, in part, because they never learned the older ways of thinking and could think in new ways."

The researchers found that the probability that a great contribution in physics was theoretical peaked in 1933, supporting the idea that the rise of younger Nobel Prize winners was associated with more theoretical contributions.

Another reason that younger scientists may have made more significant contributions early in the 20th century is that they finished their training earlier in life.

The majority of Nobel Laureates received their doctoral degrees by age 25 in the early 20th century, the researchers found. However, all three fields showed substantial declines in this tendency, with nearly no physics or chemistry laureates receiving their degrees that early in life by the end of the century.

In another analysis, the researchers examined the of studies referenced in important scientific papers in the three fields through the 20th century. They found that in the early part of the 1900s -- the time when made its mark -- there was a strong tendency for physics to reference mostly recent work.

"The question is, how much old knowledge of the field do you need to know to make important scientific contributions in your field?" Weinberg said.

"The fact that physicists in the early 20th century were citing mostly recent work suggests that older scientists didn't have any advantage -- their more complete knowledge of older work wasn't necessary to make important contributions to the field. That could be one reason why younger scientists made such a mark."

But now, physicists are more likely to cite older studies in their papers, he said. That means older scientists may have an advantage because of their depth of knowledge.

Weinberg said the results of this study could be considered good news for science today, because the research workforce is aging considerably.

"If you take the view that science is a young person's game, then this aging trend is alarming. But if scientists can be productive as they get older, as this study suggests, there may be less of a problem," Weinberg said.

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gmurphy
4.4 / 5 (10) Nov 07, 2011
All the low-hanging fruit has been taken, now we must scrabble for decades in order to reach delicacies which hide up amongst the forbidding precipices of scientific insight :)
MaxwellsDemon
4.4 / 5 (7) Nov 07, 2011
Perhaps. Or perhaps the scientific establishment has grown intolerant of irreverent upstarts with the creative capacity to turn codified theory on its head. I sometimes wonder if radical advancements have come to a screeching halt not because we've gleaned most of the answers, but because so many of our brightest minds are waiting tables.

I hope you're right. But I fear you're not.
Callippo
1.7 / 5 (7) Nov 07, 2011
The reason is, the elderly physicists are more inquisitive and willing to risk their professional carrier, as the example of cold fusion research illustrates:

http://www.wired....tml?pg=3

In a huge, grandiose convention center I found about 200 extremely conventional-looking scientists, almost all of them male and over 50. In fact some seemed over 70, and I realized why: The younger ones had bailed years ago, fearing career damage from the cold fusion stigma.

"I have tenure, so I don't have to worry about my reputation," commented physicist George Miley, 65. "But if I were an assistant professor, I would think twice about getting involved."
Callippo
1.7 / 5 (6) Nov 07, 2011
In AWT theory the scientific theories and even whole scientific areas undergo pseudo-cyclic evolution, similar to other multicomponent systems, like biological colonies, cities and empires. The physics is old conservative branch of science, where many psychosocial dependencies are reversed. The more progressive are the older individuals, rather then younger ones. We can compare the evolution of human understanding to the spreading of ripples at the water surface

During this spreading the dispersive character of surface ripples decreases first, which prefers the formal, schematic and deterministic approach to science. But after certain limit the indeterministic character of water surface manifests and the character of ripples becomes more indeterministic again. Which leads into preference of more intuitive, balanced and holistic approaches to reality understanding. Such approaches are typical just for older scientists with more rich background of life experience.
Squirrel
1 / 5 (3) Nov 07, 2011
It takes 20 years now to learn how to game the system and build sufficient network capital so unconventional ideas can pass the filter of peer review. Most ideas even if they turn out later to be breakthroughs start off with numerous bugs, incomplete details, and problems of being on the start of the learning curve--unless protected from peer review they get killed off. Only by their 40s do scientists have the ability to promote and protect their ideas so they survive this early kill off stage.
_nigmatic10
4 / 5 (1) Nov 07, 2011
Must be all the schooling a debt the young scientist have to struggle through.
Callippo
1 / 5 (5) Nov 07, 2011
It takes 20 years now to learn how to game the system
Nope, the system is simply fu*ing the game. For example, the cold fusion findings of Piantelli were simply ignored in the same way, like the antigravity finding of Podkletnov, the room superconductivity finding of J.F.Prins and the findings of many others.

Max Planck: "An important scientific innovation rarely makes its way by gradually winning over and converting its opponents. What does happen is that its opponents gradually die out, and that the growing generation is familiarized with the ideas from the beginning."

This golden rule isn't valid anymore, because the negativism simply survives in another generations of physicists through various interdisciplinary cooperations. You must be very specialized in your narrow field of interest to hope, your finding will not offense anyone even after forty years.
Deesky
5 / 5 (2) Nov 07, 2011
Must be all the schooling a debt the young scientist have to struggle through.

What do student debts have to do with scientific discovery?
Deesky
5 / 5 (5) Nov 07, 2011
For example, the cold fusion findings of Piantelli were simply ignored in the same way, like the antigravity finding of Podkletnov, the room superconductivity finding of J.F.Prins and the findings of many others.

You still peddling this crap? Unbelievable!
Callippo
1 / 5 (5) Nov 07, 2011
You still peddling this crap?
The simple repeating "it's a crap" will not make the random accidental finding a crap. You must prove it experimentally, i.e. to make another experiment for being able to refuse it. These confirmational experiments are still missing for the phenomena above named.

The Popper's methodology is completely symmetric in this point: the negative hypothesis is a new hypothesis and as such it must be handled with caution in the same way, like the original hypothesis. Because the physics is experimental science, it doesn't matter, how much clever you are or how much you (dis)believe in some experiment - the experiment has always its last word.
Callippo
1 / 5 (6) Nov 07, 2011
As a simple orientation clue we can say, if some accidental finding is refused obstinately even after twenty years after its original publication WITHOUT single attempt for peer-reviewed confirmation, then its highly probable, this phenomena is actually quite real and all its opponents are realizing it on background, so they're avoiding it intentionally.

And vice-versa: when some theory is believed forty years without single experimental confirmation (..despite the numerous attempts for it..), then it's probably religious BS and the people involved just afraid to admit it at public. We are facing sort of psychosocial hysteresis here.

Joseph Goebbels: "Repeat a lie a thousand times and it becomes the truth"
210
1 / 5 (2) Nov 07, 2011
It takes 20 years now to learn how to game the system and build sufficient network capital so unconventional ideas can pass the filter of peer review. Most ideas even if they turn out later to be breakthroughs start off with numerous bugs, incomplete details, and problems of being on the start of the learning curve--unless protected from peer review they get killed off. Only by their 40s do scientists have the ability to promote and protect their ideas so they survive this early kill off stage.

My friend...are you speaking from personal experience or eye witness account? If that question is too 'sensitive' or...telling...sorry.
word-
Deesky
5 / 5 (4) Nov 07, 2011
The simple repeating "it's a crap" will not make the random accidental finding a crap.

Nor will your constant repeating of discredited and fraudulent cold fusion claims (aka Rossi ecat) make it any more scientific. Not to mention the aether nonsense. Repeating the same deluded beliefs over and over is surely a sign of mental impairment.

Because the physics is experimental science, it doesn't matter, how much clever you are or how much you (dis)believe in some experiment - the experiment has always its last word.

Indeed. And after 12 failed attempts at open and transparent 'experiments' by Rossi the fraud, it's ironic that you could say something like that.
210
1 / 5 (5) Nov 07, 2011
You still peddling this crap?
The simple repeating "it's a crap" will not make the random accidental finding a crap. You must prove it experimentally, i.e. to make another experiment for being able to refuse it. These confirmational experiments are still missing for the phenomena above named.

The Popper's methodology is completely symmetric in this point: the negative hypothesis is a new hypothesis and as such it must be handled with caution in the same way, like the original hypothesis. Because the physics is experimental science, it doesn't matter, how much clever you are or how much you (dis)believe in some experiment - the experiment has always its last word.

But...'Deesky' does not like what you have written and if Deesky is department head/Chair, you have to outlive him to be heard, ergo: You will be OLD or retired by the time your discovery is heeded! There we have it folks, right before our eyes, Callippo, has shown us how the 'game' side of things work
word
Callippo
2 / 5 (4) Nov 07, 2011
Actually, the whole problem is, the scientists do care about their jobs and continuity of research. They don't risk anything, if they will close all potentially important ideas into treasury, as R. Wilson recognized and expressed already before many years:

http://www.aether...memo.gif

Wilson was head of APS mafia and head of USA military research many years, - so he knew quite well, what he can say at public and what he actually wanted to say. He just expressed his many years standing life experience of boss of physical research.
Callippo
1 / 5 (4) Nov 07, 2011
You will be OLD or retired by the time your discovery is heeded!
The cold fusion will be (dis)proven a way sooner, I hope. The person of Rossi is not important here at all. He is just an implementer of finding, which was revealed a twenty years before. In science is not normal, when physicists are judging the validity of relativity theory by the success of GPS satellites producer at free market. Apparently, the physicists decided to ignore all existing publications of Piantelli and Foccardi as a whole - they're dealing just with Rossi, like if all previous articles about the same topics would never ever exist.

http://newenergyt...rs.shtml

And this ostentatious ignorance is another indicia, the whole thing is smelling pretty much. All skeptics are focused to Rossi by now, because they consider him as an easier target with respect to his problematic past and his apparent - though understandable - caginess.
Deesky
5 / 5 (2) Nov 07, 2011
'Deesky' does not like what you have written and if Deesky is department head/Chair, you have to outlive him to be heard, ergo: You will be OLD or retired by the time your discovery is heeded!

If I were a department head and a never before heard claim of cold fusion came to me, I would be intrigued by the possibility. I would want to know the theoretical underpinnings and/or evidence of the claims. I would set up a lab to investigate. If, however, the claims don't pan out and there is no theoretical basis for the effect, I would be very skeptical.

But even so, given the vast potential of the claim, I might not pull the plug just yet, and try to get other groups to reproduce it. If there were still no results, I would indeed redirect my department's funds to more scientifically plausible research.

There we have it folks, right before our eyes, Callippo, has shown us how the 'game' side of things work

LOL!
OdieNewton
not rated yet Nov 07, 2011
Well it's certainly not helping that the people working in the field don't make the front line very accessible, and factoring in the fact that college students interested in research are funneled directly into someone else's research program immediately, it makes sense to me that grad students and recent PhD's aren't making breakthroughs. The only way in is through academia.
Skepticus
1.8 / 5 (5) Nov 08, 2011
"I have tenure, so I don't have to worry about my reputation," commented physicist George Miley, 65. "But if I were an assistant professor, I would think twice about getting involved."

That says it all.
sherriffwoody
not rated yet Nov 08, 2011
There might also be the fact that in the past scientists ended up moving into managerial roles earlier. I'm not a scientist but I'm sure changes in management structures have probably influenced who makes the break throughs. Obviously this is in combination with most other points highlighted within the article and the comments.
rawa1
1 / 5 (2) Nov 08, 2011
I..the claims don't pan out and there is no theoretical basis for the effect..
The problem simply is, everyone is doubting the cold fusion in avalanche way, but (nearly) none is willing to invest into its research. The problem isn't in absence of theories, as many theories exist already (theorists are less carefull) - just less or more silly. The formally thinking people cannot work well with subliminal evidence. There are actually many indicia for anomalous evolution of heat, sparks at electrodes, residual X-ray and gamma radiation, traces of alpha particles near electrodes - but until this evidence doesn't exceed 50%, the physicists aren't willing to consider it as a whole. One hundred of 10% indicia doesn't count for them like one 50% evidence. It's because they tend to black-white vision or reality, they're focused to its gradients. For formally thinking theorists the water doesn't exist, until it doesn't form some surface, which is is opened to formal description.
rawa1
1 / 5 (2) Nov 08, 2011
One source of problem is in overspecialisation of people involved in physical research. The learning of modern formal theories is not easy, it often requires whole productive carrier of experts. Such experts cannot communicate well mutually, they're focused to their own theory and they don't see problems of their theories from outside. For relativists the relativity is always OK, because they're always using the observational perspective, which fits well its postulates. They don't see, the light literally stops its motion near black hole, they still consider it as a free motion in curved space-time. It's local perspective, which isn't transferable into wider context. In addition, the theorists are proud to their qualification and they tend to fight mutually. They're not motivated in mutual reconciliation of their theories, especially when they could face the lost of job. The more theories, the more theorists could keep their research - so why such people would try to reconcile them?
rawa1
1 / 5 (2) Nov 08, 2011
In general, the problem of scientific society is quite common problem of information spreading inside of every sufficiently extensive and dense system. Such system undergoes a spontaneous symmetry breaking, it becomes fragmented into isolated vortices, which doesn't exchange their energy well. The residual energy exchange in such system proceeds without any resistance instead like inside of superfluids. The scientific society changed into boson condensate and it behaves like black hole with respect to the rest of society. Such sectarian society cannot exchange any information with the rest of people, it has become useless for it. This is one of reason, why really important findings appear rather outside the community of mainstream physicists. The risks connected with LHC research are indicating, such community could become even dangerous for the rest of human civilization, because it lacks public feedback.

http://www.techno...v/27319/
antialias_physorg
3 / 5 (2) Nov 08, 2011
It takes 20 years now to learn how to game the system and build sufficient network capital so unconventional ideas can pass the filter of peer review.

Peer review is often anonymous. As a reviewer you get a paper but you don't know who wrote it.

Though to be perfectly honest you can often infer who (or at least what group) authored it. The number of groups on any one particular subject is small. Additionally many papers are based on earlier work and therefore cite previous papers. So if you go hunting through the 'References' section you can often take a pretty good guess as to where it came from.

That said you can still not figure whether the paper is authored by the head of the group or some PhD student. So the argument about needing to 'game' the peer review system is bogus.
antialias_physorg
3 / 5 (2) Nov 08, 2011
Deesky is department head/Chair, you have to outlive him to be heard, ergo: You will be OLD or retired by the time your discovery is heeded!

Researchers are allowed to do their research elsewhere if they feel they are treated unfairly. If they can show that their work is good/has merit there are certainly many other groups that would be glad to have them. No one ever has to 'outlive' anybody if they don't want to.

Well it's certainly not helping that the people working in the field don't make the front line very accessible,

Professors are interested in producing PhDs. Most certainly they are interested in pushing their students to the forefront.
The reason that PhD students often aren't making breakthroughs is that they first have to get acquainted with the field and what _needs_ researching. This takes considerable time. The number of publications to wade through today before you even know what has and hasn't been done is HUGE. Professors often have the better overview.
Nerdyguy
1.8 / 5 (5) Nov 08, 2011
I'm surprised I haven't seen anyone seen anyone mention the possibility that modern medicine and pharmaceuticals have allowed us to be more intellectually innovative for a longer period of time. 40 is the new 30?
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (1) Nov 08, 2011
I'm surprised I haven't seen anyone seen anyone mention the possibility that modern medicine and pharmaceuticals have allowed us to be more intellectually innovative for a longer period of time.

I don't know about you but I know hardly anyone in their forties who has to take pharmaceuticals on a regular basis (certainly no one in the science departments I worked in).

That effect probably starts taking hold much later (maybe 80 is the new 60?)

As for the article:
But now, physicists are more likely to cite older studies in their papers, he said.

I think that hits the nail on the head. There are areas of research where citing papers older than 5 years is not a good idea (e.g. image segmentation or medical simulation). Fast growing areas of research certainly are more quickly accessible to young researechers.

OdinsAcolyte
1 / 5 (2) Nov 08, 2011
Because the easy and obvious have already been determined. What is left are the things that are most difficult and require focus and the time it takes to sort things out. In fact the work of our most recent geniuses has not been thoroughly explored or acknowledged. Some real and difficult work will take a very long time. Flashes of brilliance are just that; like lightning. It takes time for the straight light of intellect to burn what a lightning bolt can incinerate quickly.
Dug
1 / 5 (1) Nov 08, 2011
Could also be that with research funding becoming almost non-existent, there has been downward pressure on starting salaries as well - turning new job seekers into more lucrative - survivable areas of employment.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (1) Nov 08, 2011
Could also be that with research funding becoming almost non-existent, there has been downward pressure on starting salaries as well

Amen. That is exactly why I stopped doing science a year ago and started earning a salary. The yearly reports of what kind of pension I would be getting - if I continued working in the science sector - were getting increasingly scary (For the kind of money I would have been getting I could have chosen which bridge to live/die under - but that would have been about it).

I'd love to go back. But until I find a way to earn even a modest living there I won't.
rawa1
1 / 5 (1) Nov 08, 2011
But now, physicists are more likely to cite older studies in their papers, he said.
This article in Nature explains it in detail: the scientists are hijaacking system, the qualitative criterion of which are based on the number of citations. As the result, scientists tend to publish unoriginal research (with many references to earlier work), rather then new, potentially controversial research (with few references to earlier work). In addition, scientists tend to publish positive, rather then negative articles (these denying existing theories the less).

http://www.nature...406.html

Why they're doing so? Because they're payed for references, not for the originality of research. As the result, the physicists are refuting to work on the topics, which don't play well with their existing theories and they tend to research topics, which are supporting them. The problem is rooted deeply inside of system on which scientific community is based.
OdieNewton
5 / 5 (1) Nov 08, 2011
Antialias, I understand the point you made about professors wanting to produce PhD's, and thank you for the insight on the need to become acquainted with the system.
Quite honestly, this article seems overly subjective in its most basic levels to really be useful in any way. There are other things that could influence the data, like the opinions of those on the board that reviews nominations, what defines a "breakthrough," etc. It takes enough effort to figure out the laws regarded as breakthroughs, but I would posit that it would be ever more difficult to predict where those discoveries will come from. Way too many variables.
So essentially, this article displays a pattern about a change in human dynamics that is already past, not a description of what's going on now.

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