Are You Too Old to Be Brilliant?

When are brilliant scientists the most brilliant? What age are you likely to be when the Nobel committee comes calling? Pick one of the following answers:

  • You need a lot of expertise and wisdom to make a big breakthrough. You need professional connections, lots of research money, and big laboratories. Scientific breakthroughs come from people in middle age, or maybe even at the end of their careers.
  • It’s the young upstarts who have lots of energy and fresh ideas. After all, the old scientists are stuck in ideas from the past. They’re already past their prime. They’re tired and don’t have much energy any more. Am I talking about myself at the ripe old age of 56? I didn’t get much sleep last night, and my knees are kind of sore 🙂

A new study gives us the answer: None of the above. There’s no relationship between age and creative scientific contribution. The authors of the study analyzed 2,856 physicists, working from 1893 to the present. They found that the best predictor of exceptional creativity is productivity. It’s lots of hard work. The scientists who do the most experiments, and test the most hypotheses, are the ones with the big contributions. The researchers found that once they’d controlled for productivity, age doesn’t add any additional predictive power.

The researchers identified a second variable that’s related to scientific impact: They called it Q, and it includes intelligence, motivation, openness to ideas, ability to write well. Another surprise: The variable Q doesn’t change over your career. (Otherwise, you’d be back to the theory that age predicts creativity.)

It’s still true that younger scientists are more likely to make a significant contribution. But it’s not because a person has more brilliant insights in your 20s, and it’s not because their ideas are fresh and unbound by old-fashioned tradition. It’s because they work harder and that’s why they’re more productive. So if you’re older, there’s still hope.

Now if only I could get a good night’s sleep.

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