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Why Nobel Laureates Are Getting Older

Scientists are making major discoveries at more advanced ages than in the past



Ted Spiegel/Corbis

Albert Einstein once commented that “a person who has not made his great contribution to science before the age of 30 will never do so.” This may have been an accurate reflection of physics in his time, but it is no longer the case—for physics or any other field. Benjamin Jones, an expert in innovation at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and Bruce Weinberg of Ohio State University analyzed 525 Nobel Prizes awarded in physics, chemistry and medicine between 1900 and 2008. With a few exceptions—notably quantum mechanics discoveries of the 1920s and 1930s—the trend across all fields is toward researchers being older when they produce their greatest work.   

To explain the aging effect, Jones and Weinberg suggest a shift from theoretical work, in which youngsters do better, toward experimental work, which requires aggregation of knowledge. They also believe that as fields expand, it may take longer to accumulate the knowledge necessary to make a novel contribution.  

Those younger than 30 need not despair, though. The anomaly of quantum physics suggests that, in the case of a scientific revolution where established knowledge can be a hindrance rather than a help, the trend might reverse. “If there are future revolutions out there, it may make people younger yet again,” Jones remarks.

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