Maybe Einstein Was Wrong About This

A new analysis suggests an oft-cited claim about when astronomers peak is pretty off.

The Atacama Large Millimetre/Submillimetre Array (ALMA) in Chile
The Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile (Ivan Alvarado / Reuters)

Of the many catchy quotes attributed to Albert Einstein, this may produce perhaps the most anxiety among the scientists who have come after him: “A person who has not made his great contribution to science before the age of 30 will never do so.”

The exact origins of the oft-cited statement are murky, so it’s difficult to determine whether the great theoretical physicist said it in seriousness or jest. Whatever the intention, research on the connections between age and scientific output have frequently shown that Einstein’s claim was wrong—or at least, not exactly true for everyone. The study of these connections is far from new, and the results are usually tricky to extrapolate to larger populations. An effect found for top performers in one field may not necessarily apply for high achievers in another, for example. But the topic has long fascinated researchers and writers, including Helmut Abt, an astronomer and former longtime editor at The Astrophysical Journal.

Abt has been studying trends in the professional output of scientists since the early 1980s. He has found, as others have, that a specific category of researchers—the top performers, the Nobel Prize winners, the geniuses—seem to produce the most significant contributions to their fields during their 30s, with some exceptions (what is it about classical composers?). In his most recent study, published this fall in Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, Abt sought to explore the professional output of “average” individuals, specifically those in astronomy.

Abt examined the work of a small group of astronomers who died between last October and this June. He picked as his measure of productivity—a tremendously subjective thing—the number of times their research papers had been cited in other papers over the course of their lifetimes. “Of course we know that astronomers do many useful things, such as teaching, public education, service on committees both within their institutions and nationally, etc.,” Abt wrote in the paper. “This study concentrates only on research results that directly aided research by others.”

The sample included 22 men and three women, nearly all of whom began publishing papers in their 20s. Abt sifted through the citations for each astronomer, which can be found on a public database operated by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. He found that, by this measure, average astronomers peaked in their careers at the age of 45. His analysis also suggested they do half of their most important work after the age of 50.

The findings line up nicely with earlier research on the subject. In 1874, a study on age and scientific output found that peak performance in the science and creative arts usually occurred between the ages of 35 and 40. (That could be attributed, in some part, to the fact that these individuals, er, ran out of time to peak after that; the life expectancy for men—the people most likely to be carrying out research at the time—born in 1800 was about 44 years old at birth.)

An analysis in 1953 of the most successful performers in fields like art, science, music, literature, and others found the peak ranged from 34 years in math to 44 in astronomy. The psychology professor Dean Keith Simonton, well-known for his studies on creativity and age, concludes that creativity ramps up in the beginning of one’s career, peaks at about 40 or 45, and then gradually declines.

In 2011, researchers analyzed more than 400 Nobel Prizes in physics, chemistry, and medicine between 1900 and 2008 and found, with a few exceptions, most researchers were older than 30 when they produced their most important work. Nobel Prizes, however, have long been criticized as a flawed form of recognition of scientific contributions because they overlook many of the individuals who made them happen, as my colleague Ed Yong has written about here.

The reasons for why people seem to peak at these ages have remained just as fascinating and difficult to pin down as the effect itself. The researchers behind the 2011 analysis suggest a shift in the last century from theoretical work, where they say younger people tend to be more successful, toward experimental work, which usually requires a mature foundation of knowledge to carry out. Other factors include health and access to expensive equipment, which would be easier for older individuals to get. Abt speculates older astronomers may take high-level positions at universities and scientific institutions that remove them from the daily grind of research.

According to his own research, Abt has already peaked. He turned 92 this year. In 1952, when he was 27, Abt received the first doctoral degree in astrophysics the California Institute of Technology awarded, for his work on pulsating stars.

“I don’t think what I did in the next three years was necessarily some of my best research,” he said with a laugh. “So no, what Einstein said did not apply to me. But I am not one of the top prizewinners in astronomy. I’m just an average astronomer who just loves to do research.”