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The Wiley Handbook of Genius by Dean Keith Simonton

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20 Age and Scientific Genius

Benjamin F. Jones, E.J. Reedy, and Bruce A. Weinberg

Introduction

What is the relationship between age and scientific genius? This question has long fascinated scientists, the institutions that support scientific research, and the public at large. Understanding the nexus between age and great scientific insight can inform the nature of creativity, the mechanisms of scientific progress, and the design of institutions that support scientists. It can also shed light on subjects that at first blush seem farther afield, such as the implications of aging populations, education policies, and economic growth. The role of age in science has attracted the interest of both scientific greats and science policy leaders. Albert Einstein once quipped that “a person who has not made his great contribution to science before the age of 30 will never do so.” Meanwhile, a recent director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) declared the advancing age at which investigators receive their first NIH grant as “the greatest problem facing U.S. science.”

In this chapter, we review empirical evidence on the relationship between age and great scientific output, discuss mechanisms at work, and consider the implications. Studies of age and scientific output have a long pedigree, dating at least from Beard (1874/1979), who estimated that peak performance in science and creative arts typically occurred between the ages of 35 and 40. A large research enterprise has since ...

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