What’s the best age to win a Nobel Prize?

What's the best age to win a Nobel Prize? By  an article from ars technica

When you think of a prize-winning scientist, do you picture a young genius bursting with creativity and new ideas, or an older, more seasoned researcher that has been slaving away at the bench for decades? It turns out both images are pretty accurate. According to a recent paper in PNAS, the average age at which scientists complete Nobel Prize-winning work has varied greatly over the history of the prize, depending on the era and the scientific field.

Curious about the relationship between age, creativity, and scientific achievement, a group of researchers analyzed data regarding the Nobel Prizes won in physics, chemistry, and medicine between 1900 and 2008. They determined how old each winner was when they completed their prize-winning research, creating a dataset of 525 Nobel Prize winners (182 in physics, 153 in chemistry, and 190 in medicine).

When data from all the fields was combined, there was a definite pattern across the years: winners doing work in the very early years of the Nobel Prize were far younger, on average, than those doing work in the most recent years. Before 1905, 60 percent of physicists, 69 percent of chemists, and 63 percent of scientists in the medical field had finished their prize-winning work by the age of 40. By 2000, only 19 percent of physicists and nearly no chemists had completed their great work by this age. Medical scientists were the only researchers for whom this statistic was similar over the two time periods.

The field of physics had one of the more interesting patterns over time. The number of physicists who achieved greatness at a young age rises sharply between 1905 to 1934, at which time 78 percent of winners did their prize-winning work before they were 40 years old. After 1934, this number drops again quickly.

This rise in the incidence of young achievement in physics occurred at the same time that the field of quantum mechanics was developing. The authors of the paper suggest that unusually young physicists were able to excel during this time for two reasons: first, there was almost no existing knowledge of the field, and second, most of the work was theoretical or abstract. To be a great physicist at the time, one didn’t have to spend time boning up on background information or carrying out detailed experiments.

The authors further examined the relationship between type of work and age of achievement, and found that theorists accomplish Nobel-quality work more than four years earlier than experimental scientists, on average. Another interesting correlation exists between a Nobel winner’s age at the time of his prize-winning work and the age at which they complete their education. For every three extra years a scientist spends completing their highest degree (a doctorate for 98 percent of the winners), the age at which they complete their prize-winning work increases by a year.

Obviously, these patterns are subject to many fluctuations and variables, but they are an interesting way to look at the link between achievement and age in different scientific realms and across decades. Each field has a unique pattern over time that tells a story about the progression of the field and the scientists who contributed to it.

PNAS, 2011. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1102895108  (About DOIs).



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