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Why Nobel-Winning Scientists are Getting Older

Stashed in: Aging, Science Too, Education, Freakonomics

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The Shoulders of Increasingly Gigantic Giants

There are a lot of factors at play here. Over the past century, the median age has gotten higher, in general; as has life-expectancy. But the authors hypothesize that the increasing wait for a prize is evidence that innovation is actually “stalling-out” in the sciences, particularly physics.

Their theory is supported by research by Benjamin Jones and Bruce Weinberg, who discovered that scientists are winning Nobels for discoveries made later and later in life -- i.e. Nobel-winners are trending older both at time of award and time of discovery. They also found that this effect was robust to demographics. “There has been a large shift,” they write, “even when controlling for an aging population.”

Jones and Weinberg attribute this chiefly to the fact that, as the sciences have developed and expanded, innovators have needed more and more training. As Isaac Newton wrote in a letter in 1676, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” It seems the giants of physics, chemistry, physiology & medicine have gotten taller. And they take more time to scale.

“[T]here has been a large upward trend in the age at which innovators begin their active careers,” they write. “The estimates suggest that, on average, the great minds of the 20th Century typically became research active at age 23 at the start of the [c]entury, but only at age 31 at the end.”

Related to this, the age at which Nobel-winning scientist received their Ph.D.s increased over the 20th Century.

So the main challenge is it takes decades to have the foundational knowledge before one can contribute?

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