Elderly people are discharged en masse because they are less innovative and too expensive. A survey among Nobel laureates now shows that that is nonsense, at least in the field of science. In fact, most scientific breakthroughs are now being achieved by the elderly.
Nobel laureates keep getting older
A study comparing Nobel laureates between 1901 and 2008 in the fields of physics, chemistry and medicine examined the age at which scientists did their Nobel Prize-worthy work. The results showed that before 1905, about two-thirds of the winners in all three fields did their prize-winning work before the age of 40. About twenty percent even did this before their thirtieth birthday. In the year 2000, however, hardly any major achievements were found in any of these three fields for the thirtieth year. In physics, for example, Nobel Prize-worthy work was done only in 19% of the cases that year, and hardly ever in chemistry. "The image of the brilliant young scientist achieving essential scientific breakthroughs is increasingly outdated," said Bruce Weinberg, a professor of economics at Ohio State University. He is the author of the study with colleague Benjamin Jones of Northwestern University. The average age at which groundbreaking physics research is done is 48 and barely under 30, says Weinberg.
Golden Age very important
The researchers believe the shift in age has to do with both the type of breakthroughs being awarded (theoretical or experimental) and how long it takes scientists to train and start their career as a researcher. Previous work on creativity in the natural sciences, where creativity peaked at certain ages (different per discipline) incorrectly assumed that these ages remain the same. However, the time in which the research was conducted is much more important, Weinberg said.
Generation that developed quantum mechanics very successfully
For the study, the researchers analyzed all 525 Nobel Prizes awarded during this period in physics, chemistry and medicine. They determined the age at which the researchers did their Nobel Prize-winning work by digging through their biographies. The advance of young researchers in physics coincided with the breakthrough of quantum mechanics. This created a completely new field, in which young scientists could make rapid progress with little ballast. No wonder it was raining then Nobel Prizes among this group. Before and after this period, older researchers were more successful.
Older people more often in the laboratory
What also makes a difference is whether it concerns theoretical or experimental work. Theoretical work requires little more than a good set of brains, a laptop with internet, Maple or Mathematica and an unconventional way of thinking. Practical Nobel Prize-worthy work requires you to have an LHC-like accelerator in your backyard or be in charge of a state-of-the-art research lab. It takes the necessary time to have delivered sufficient performance (and elbow work) for this.
Much longer study needed now than then
Also, a hundred years ago, physics, chemistry and medicine were much simpler than they are now. To reach the level at which Nobel Prize-worthy work can be delivered alone, a scientist now has to study for years. A PhD student is often already in their thirties and still has to start research.
Knowledge of previous research is now a big advantage
Older scientists are usually well aware of the historical development of their profession and also remember sidetracks that followed earlier but then fell out of fashion. Their greater intellectual lock-in, which once caused a scientist to argue that old paradigms don't disappear because scientists leave them but because the older generation is dying out, is less important then. Scientists now also quote from older work more often (and rightly so, we have gotten good inspiration for fun topics from here on Visionair.nl). The higher a scientist scores on the citation index, the more Nobel Prize-worthy he is usually.
Aging population also plays a role
Not mentioned by the researchers, but demographic factors are certainly also important. The population pyramid in the 1930s was indeed a pyramid back then. Now it seems to have more of a misshapen mushroom. The more older people there are, the more likely an older researcher will come across something worthwhile.
Not age, but peak fantasy is the problem
Indeed, it is not so much age, but rather peak fantasy that is the main problem as an inhibiting factor in research innovation. This deadly and persistent plague occurs not only in the elderly, but at all ages. Everywhere the after-ratters are advancing. Time for less chat and more kukel, to quote Maarten Toonder, who sadly died, but very original.