Sunday, July 27, 2014

Brilliant Scientists are Getting Older

Philip Ball:
Famous scientists are making their big discoveries ever later in their careers. A study in 2011 found that the average age at which Nobel laureates in physics, chemistry and medicine conducted their key work has risen from mid-to-late 30s before 1905 to 45-50 after 1985. Even more strikingly, whereas one in five laureates pre-1905 made their breakthrough discoveries before they hit 30, now almost none do so.
And why might that be? Ball blames the bureaucratic structure of contemporary science:
I suspect the finding also reveals that the research landscape no longer supports innovative thinking in young scientists. There is no reason to suppose that postgraduates and even undergraduates are any less brilliant than they were 100 years ago. But if they want to get established and secure in the scientific world then they have to start publishing papers rapidly, which encourages them to focus on making incremental advances in safe projects. What’s more, the tremendous pressures they now face—not only expectations about results and papers, but the administrative and teaching duties they must shoulder, and the scrabbling for funding leave little time for thinking about the big ideas.
I would point in other directions. First, the big advances in science these days mainly come from huge, cooperative teams; the Large Hadron Collider with its thousands of scientists is only the most extreme example of this trend. The leaders of such teams, to whom much of the credit is given, are always mature scientists with many years of experience. Perhaps younger scientists could perform this job just as well, if we let them; but in fact we don't, so we have no idea.

Second, I have a strong sense that within our main scientific paradigms, the sort of work that could be done by a single scientist working alone has already been done. With so many clever scientists in every field, the flashes of insight available at our current level of knowledge have already occurred to somebody. Cutting edge science increasingly requires thousands of person-hours of grinding work, because, again, all the easy stuff has already been done. When a field of science is new --quantum mechanics in the 1920s, plate techtonics in the 1960s -- there is low-hanging fruit that a lone genius can pluck. After fifty years, what is there left? Only work that hasn't been done because the resources weren't available.

Obviously that is not entirely true, and people have exciting new insights all the time. But at the Nobel Prize level they are getting rarer and rarer.


pootrsox said...

One also has to wonder how many shoulders upon which those individual scientists stood to reach their new discoveries went unacknowledged much less credited.

John said...

Good point. If a young scientist had a brilliant now, we he or she get credit, or would it go to the Team and its leader?