My 25th birthday is upon me, so naturally I want to make sure I'm on track. A 2011 paper in PNAS by Jones & Weinberg on Age Dynamics in Scientific Creativity was quite insightful. They find that in modern times, 60% of Nobel-prize winning research in medicine is conducted by age 40. Fifteen years doesn't seem like much time to dream up, fund, and execute game-changing research, but I remain optimistic. The authors helpfully deposited their data, so I put together a data summary.
Physicists are under a bit of a time crunch. Empirical physicists conduct their great work in their early 30s, on average (all research ages are approximate midpoints). Theoreticians, and scientists in medicine and chemistry have a bit more wiggle room - til their late 30s. Theoretical work in general seems to require a bit more time to synthesize than empirical research.
Don't get discouraged, though. Raymond Davis Jr. did his great work at age 80 on detection of cosmic neutrinos. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics (together with Masatoshi Koshiba and Riccardo Giacconi) at age 88. There are also nine scientists who did not complete their highest degree until after age 35, including Marie Curie, Francis Crick, and Pierre Currie.
On the other hand, five prize-winning physicists did their life's work at 22, so don't get complacent either. In Medicine has some young geniuses too - Joshua Lederberg won a prize in Medicine for work he did at the precocious age of 20. You might also be dismayed to learn that three scientists completed their education by age 20, including Adolf Butenandt, who finished his schooling at age 14 (his official Nobel biography says 24, which I'm much more inclined to believe).
Regardless of when you get your start in science, it takes time to become a pro. When considering time from final degree to when the Nobel prize-winning research was conducted, physicists are once again in a rush. An impressive eighteen seem to have won awards for the dissertation research (judging by if their research age was within one year of their age at final degree). These student superstars are the reason why the y axis on the bottom plot dips below zero.
Medicine and chemistry are a bit slower out of the gate, with a median 12 and 15 years, compared to 9 in physics. John Penn did his great work in chemistry 48 years after his completing his degree. He graduated high school at age 15 and went on to finish his PhD at 23 with a dissertation just 45 pages long though, so clearly he was not an academic underdog.
When you change science as we understand it, sometimes the world needs a bit of time to catch up. It takes about 16 years on average from when great science is conducted until a Nobel Prize is awarded. That lag is pretty steady between fields, but of course there are some outliers. Nine scientists received an award within a year of their groundbreaking work, including Marie and Irene Joliot Curie. On the other hand, four people waited more than 50 years, including Arvid Carlsson, who did his great work while in graduate school and received his prize more than a half century later.
In the end, I think the range of experiences shows that revolutionary science can happen at almost any age.
"Send me your data - PDF is fine," said no one ever
The public health paradox ("When public health works, it's invisible")
Let's make data a civic right
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