Nov. 08, 2011
NewsScientific News

Study Finds: Breakthrough Scientific Discoveries no Longer Dominated by the Very Young

A new study suggests, that it is no longer the case that scientists under the age of 40 make the majority of significant breakthroughs in chemistry, physics and medicine.

A study of Nobel Laureates from 1901 to 2008 in these three fields examined the age at which scientists 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 physics, 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"The image of the brilliant young scientist who makes critical breakthroughs in science is increasingly outdated, at least in these three disciplines," said Bruce Weinberg, co-author of the study and professor of economics at Ohio State University.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.

Read more on this study in the original publication:
Benjamin F. Jonesa and Bruce A. Weinberg: Age dynamics in scientific creativity.

PNAS, Published online before print - November 7, 2011, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1102895108

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