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Nobel-Prize Scientists Now Do Honored Work at Older Ages

Nobel Prize-winning scientists do their great work later in life, a study found, contradicting an old notion that brilliant minds produce most of the world’s scientific breakthroughs before they turn 30.

Before 1905, about two-thirds of prize winners did their work before age 40 and about 20 percent did before age 30, according to a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. By 2000, great achievements before age 30 hardly ever happened, the study found. The research focused on Nobel prizes between 1900 and 2008 in physics, chemistry and medicine.

Even Albert Einstein, winner of the 1921 Nobel Prize for physics, said “if you don’t do it by 30, you won’t do it,” said Bruce Weinberg, co-author of the study and professor of economics at Ohio State University. Today the average age at which discoveries in physics are made is 50, he said.

“There’s been this iconic image of young geniuses making great moves in science and other areas, and a lot of times, we ignore those making important contributions at later ages,” Weinberg said.

Two factors are probably responsible for the older ages of Nobel laureates: more time required to complete advanced degrees and scientific contributions that are less theoretical or abstract, which requires less accumulated knowledge, the authors wrote.

20th Century

The majority of Nobel laureates before 1905 received their highest degree by age 25, while by the end of the 20th Century physicists and chemists who had finished their final degree were older.

Further, in the beginning of the century, scientists were more likely to cite recent studies, suggesting older scientists didn’t have an advantage. That also changed, with older studies more likely to be cited in papers, giving older scientists a leg up because of their institutional knowledge.

After 1985, physicists were an average age of 50, chemists were an average age of 46 and winners in medicine were an average of 45 years old when they did their Prize-winning work, according to the study. Before 1905, the average age of physicists was 37, chemists, 36, and of winners in medicine, 38.

The authors looked at authors’ ages when the work was completed, because Nobel Prizes are frequently awarded years later.

The youngest Nobel laureate at the time of the award was Lawrence Bragg, who was 25 when he won for physics in 1915, by analyzing crystal structures using X-rays with his father. The oldest at the time of the award was Raymond Davis, Jr., who won for physics in 2002 at the age of 88 by detecting cosmic neutrinos.

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