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.