How many academics achieved/discovered great things late in life?

Are there any noted/respected academics who made brilliant discoveries late in life (say after their 40’s)?

I’m considering all types of disciplines and fields here (e.g. Economics, Mathematics, Physics etc.).

How many academics have achieved great things after having started thier academic discipline quite late?

The only example to this that I can think of is Edward Witten (considered by many to be one of the greatest thoeretical physicists of our age). He thought of going in to journalism til he was about 23, and thereafter decided that he hadn’t the right kind of personality for it. So he decided on physics instead.

He made many discoveries tied to string theory (ha ha!) during his mid-forties, and continues to be influential even now in his mid-fifties.

I hear John A. Wheeler is still going strong into his 90’s.

But I think you’ll agree that Ed still got into physics (relatively) young - and well John Wheeler isn’t considered in the same light anymore.

Okay, my examples are pretty weak but you get a general idea.

How many academics are still (or have begun) making discoveries later on in life (I take “later on in life” as any age after 40 and beyond)?

And how many were successful after starting thier academic careers (relatively) late on in life (“relatively” pertains to any age after 26)?

Both Witten and Wheeler are bad examples.

Witten was already significant by the time he got involved in string theory and had achieved enough by his 40th birthday to receive a Fields Medal (“the mathematics equivalent of a Nobel Prize”) on account of it. His early indecision about career choices may be offset to some extent by the fact that his father was a physicist.

Which is an arguably even worse example. By his early thirties, he was already regarded as one of the hottest physicists in the US. For a young student interested in quantum physics looking for a Ph.D. place there in the 1930s, he was one of the best advisors to be selected by - as was realised at the time. Given the relative infancy of theoretical physics as a field in the US, probably the only better prospect as an advisor was Oppenheimer at Berkeley.

Even within the sciences, there are plenty of examples of people who only found their careers somewhat later in life. The (unfortunately) topical example would be the late Francis Crick. He started off as a physicist and began a Ph.D. in the subject, but switched to biology when he was about aged 30. Aside from a few relatively minor contributions, his first major paper (and it was that one) came when he was 36. His career was slightly unusual in that it was interupted by WWII, but the point remains. And he continued to make major contributions for several decades thereafter.

Examples outside the sciences are too numerous to single out.

I was thinking of starting a similar thread but you obviously beat me to it. Yes it seems the people who make the great discoveries do so in their early twenties.
Just thinking off the top of my head, Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Alexander Graham Bell, Samuel Morse, John Nash ("A Beutiful Mind), Bill Gates, etc all had their great ideas early in life.
Another thing I have wondered about is how many great scientists, inventors, etc have really had more than one great idea? Maybe it is just how history likes to focus on just one aspect of a person. For example, Albert Einstein is synonamous with Relativity Theory, yet he won his Nobel Prize for the photoelectric effect.
Maybe to answer your posint and my own, I believe the electrical engineer/inventor Edwin Howard Armstrong actually had 3 great ideas.

  1. Regeneration brought radio out of the “crystal set” cat’s whisker days.
  2. Heterodyning - improved radio reception (and the biggest idea)
  3. FM broadcasting.

Sorry for the slight hijack but I think Armstrong probably is one answer to your posting.

I should have included the information that Wheeler was born in 1911 and yet was already supervising Richard Feynman as his graduate student in 1939. By most American standards, that’s precocious.

A good example of a mathematician who has discovered important things in middle age (and perhaps in old age) is Louis de Branges, who proved an important theorem called the Bieberbach Conjecture at 53. He’s recently announced that he’s proved Riemann’s Zeta Hypothesis. He’s now 72. This is about the most famous open conjecture in mathematics, so if he really has proved it, it will be a clear example of a mathematician making a major discovery in old age.

I’m a graduate student in medical research. Today all of the work in a lab is done by graduate students, post-docs, techs, and occasionally senior researchers, while the more senior Principal Investigators (the academics) are busy writing grants and papers and presenting at meetings, and providing guidance to everyone in the lab. Most medical discoveries by the academic community are accomplished by students/post-docs, but believe me we wouldn’t get very far without the brilliance and intuition of our PIs. While they aren’t hands-on doing the work, they definitely deserve credit for the results. I recently published a first-author paper that required a ton of work on my part, at least 50 hours a week for 2 years, but a few very important jumps were made due to suggestions by my PI.

I would say most important discoveries are accomplised by academics over 40.

<<< bonzer writes:
Examples outside the sciences are too numerous to single out.>>>

Well could you just name a few to give me a flavour?

<<< Wendell Wagner writes:

A good example of a mathematician who has discovered important things in middle age (and perhaps in old age) is Louis de Branges, who proved an important theorem called the Bieberbach Conjecture at 53. He’s recently announced that he’s proved Riemann’s Zeta Hypothesis. He’s now 72. This is about the most famous open conjecture in mathematics, so if he really has proved it, it will be a clear example of a mathematician making a major discovery in old age.>>>

This is spot-on the kind of thing I was looking for.

That’s some interesting food for thought, Bob

I’ll second Bob55. In biology, lots of the hard intellectual work is being done by older people, and IMHO most biologists get more intellectually productive with age. (Although, as Bob55 says, a lot of the benchwork is done by young’uns.) The first example that comes off the top of my head is Stanley Pruisner, who originated the theory of prions, which was a very revolutionary concept at the time and is still not universally accepted. He won the Nobel for medicine two years ago, I think.

I think that there is more of a bias toward age in biology. In math and physics, there is more of a need to think about existing data in new ways to create new models, which young people tend to be better at. In biology, the great ideas more often come from new research, which favors established researchers with large labs, or from connecting disparate peices of data from different fields, which favors the people who have worked on many different things in their lifetimes (as well as those with the time to sit and read lots of papers - which would be the lab heads).

All of this is anecdotal, though.


In Inventing the Middle Ages (a history of medieval studies in the twentieth century), Norman F. Cantor remarks on how academics in humanities fields tend to do their best work in middle age. He says, “The academic humanists’ most productive and creative years are generally in their forties and early fifties.” In medieval studies, as in some other humanities, it’s actually hard to do great work until you’re into middle age. There’s too much background knowledge to learn, too many research techniques to learn, too much learning one’s field by doing smaller projects to be able to tackle big projects until you’re already middle-aged.

<<< mischievous writes:
In math and physics, there is more of a need to think about existing data in new ways to create new models, which young people tend to be better at. >>>
Emphasis mine.

Is this really true? I’ve heard it very often and don’t know what to make of it. Do young people really excel at creating/producing new ideas? I don’t see why academic creativity (in the fields you mention) should diminish with age (as such).

Well, not exactly. If he did manage a proof (I’m not the strongest in analytic number theory, though I’ll ask Serge Lang at my next opportunity), he didn’t exactly do nothing earlier in his life. There’s a certain amount of fundamental work in more esoteric fields under his belt. Yes, this would be someone coming up with a major landmark late in life, but he started by making non-press-release-worthy landmarks early.

It’s not so much that it diminishes, but more that if you don’t have it and use it when you’re young you never will.

Various, more or less at random - including those who were technically not academics in that they never held a university position.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau published nothing before the age of 38 and all the really major works were written when he was significantly older.
Heinrich Schliemann was well into his forties, with a very successful business career behind him, when he first actively turned to archaeology.
Alfred Kinsey was 44 before he started on the sex research and in his fifties before the first Kinsey Report was published. Prior to that his work had been in entomology.
Another biologist who switched to the social sciences and became much better known there was Joseph Needham. Granted, his interest in Chinese history started in his thirties, but he still concentrated on embryology into his forties and only started publishing Science and Civilisation in China when he was 53.

Incidentally, Karl Sabbagh discusses the reception of Louis de Branges’ claimed proof in this recent LRB article. As duly noted in it, Sabbagh already knew de Branges and so the piece is rather biased in his favour.

Charles Darwin was 50 by the time he published *On the Origin of Species, * although he had been kicking his theory around for some 20 years before that.

I saw a statistical survey last year (I wouldn’t know how to go about searching for it) that came to the conclusion that, not only are most great science discoveries and artistic achievements done by young men but that there was a strong correlation with their romantic life. It was postulated that the drive to impress their mate to be was the real spark behind many great breakthroughs.

Funny, the study cited in this article says just about the exact opposite.

As an addendum, I can assure you that almost no (in the technical sense of “on a set of measure zero”) potential mates are impressed by breaking new ground in mathematics. At least in the US, they’re impressed by looks, money, and power. Given that the latter two almost exclude graduate students and academics entirely…

No, it doesn’t. In fact, your cite suports Eric II’s assertions.

So Eric’s first assertion is that creative output is greatest in young men - which your cite (Mathochist) supports.
Eric’s second assertion was:

Which is also supported by your cite Mathochist:

You are more likely getting confused by the fact that the competitive drive does die down (according to your cite) once the academics settle down and marry.

As an aside Silocke, I personally have noted something about this topic.

As I have gotten older, I do not have the same energy and enthusiasm for subjects I am expert in (that is very true). I do not therefore get the 1 million billion different ideas whizzing through my brain that I did at 17.

However, I have found that with age comes (at least some) wisdom, and the skill to manipulate ideas more successfully.

So for example, at 17, I may have had 20 different ideas and been able to convert two of them (mostly through luck).

However, at (the age I am now - which I won’t mention for fear of denial), I only get 5 ideas however I am able to develop 4 of them to complete fruition. A whole lot of that success comes through excellent planning, good strategy and instincts, knowing where, when and how to change something etc. This has come through (at least for me personally) age and experience.

May not really fit in here, but it’s my anecdotal experience all the same.