When is the Prime Age of Discovery in Physics?

Remember that old adage about young scientists? It goes something like this: most scientists do there best work before they’re 25.

I don’t know where this folk truism comes from, but I’ve always wondered if there’s any evidence behind it. Here’s a little evidence that suggests it might be false, and that the “prime age” for discovery in physics might be around 34.

Haphazardly choosing 20 of my favorite great physicists, I charted each one’s date of birth against the date they published a groundbreaking discovery. This indicated how old each physicist was when they made a major breakthrough. Here are the results, organized from youngest to oldest (the physicists inside the dotted lines are the median):

Here are a few interesting features of this chart:

  1. There are great physicists on both ends of the list. Those who were above the median age when they made their breakthroughs are at least as respectable as those who were below it. And Richard Feynman, one of the most revered physicists among physicists themselves, was at exactly the median age when he published “Space-Time Approach to Quantum Electrodynamics.”
  2. Einstein’s age on the chart should arguably be 35. In 1905, Einstein was 26. This was his “Miracle Year,” when he published three groundbreaking papers, which included “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” (Special Relativity). But Einstein’s greatest work is (arguably) General Relativity, which he completed in 1914 — when he already 35.
  3. Several creators of the “New Quantum Theory” were absurdly young when they made their breakthroughs. For example, Heisenberg was 24 when he wrote his “Quantum Theoretic Re-Interpretation,” and Wigner 25 when he wrote “On the Conservation Laws of Quantum Mechanics.”
  4. Not All Creators of (New) QM Were That Young. For example, Schrodinger was 39 when he made a number of important breakthroughs, including “Quantization as a Problem of Proper Values.”

Conclusion: Older scientists do great work too! The folk-truism that youth is the age of discovery is not all that accurate — although it seems approximately true for a generation of quantum theorists.

However, we may still ask: is the age of discovery becoming younger over time? Suppose we restrict our attention to the 19th century and on, and plot the date of birth of each of these physicists against their ages in the year of their major discoveries. Here’s what we get:

There does seem to be a trend toward younger and younger discoveries (the spike in the middle is Schrodinger). However, it might also be that the youth of the (new) quantum theorists was unnatural, and that if you added in more recent physicists, you would get an upward trend again.

We’ll have to make some less haphazardly assembled charts to find out.

Soul Physics is authored by Bryan W. Roberts. Thanks for subscribing.
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