I’m struck by how old some Nobel Prize winners are when they finally are honoured.
In 2019, at the ripe age of 97, John Goodenough won a share of a Nobel for his work in the 1980s when he developed the first practical lithium-ion battery with colleagues at Oxford University.
But he didn’t stop there. He continued to be active in the development of innovative new batteries, almost until he died at 100.
Goodenough was a team player and performed at the top level throughout high school, overcoming dyslexia by taking Latin and Greek, and subsequent undergraduate studies at Princeton, the Fermi Laboratory in Chicago, MIT, Oxford and in his final years at the University of Texas.
Widely respected for his collaborative, encouraging nature, intellect and experience, Goodenough was more than good enough to be a wonderful mentor to many and always, always, on the leading edge. But how many other Goodenoughs are there?
And what about theoretical physicist Roger Penrose, who at 87 won a Nobel “for the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of Einstein’s general theory of relativity” as the Nobel committee put it in 2020.
However, Penrose’s big idea for mapping the core of black holes came in 1964, when he was 31 years old.
Or what about the 2021 Nobel for climate change, which was awarded to Manabe at age 90 and did his relevant work in the 1960s.
For his part, Hasselmann was 89 in 2021 and did his work in the 1970s, and Parisi who was 73 in 2021, was recognized for work done between 1979 and 1983.
Clearly, all three were much younger when they did the work for which they were honoured.
As you might gather from my writings over the years, I’ve become somewhat obsessed with when people do their most creative, innovative, and ground-breaking work intellectually – and in a simpler but closely related example, mastering difficult athletic skills such gymnastics.
The two seem unrelated but the basic neural conditioning and learning mechanisms are in play. In athletics, top-ranked achievements are for the young, with a tip of the hat to the likes of tennis player Novak Djokovic at 36.
For the first generation of quantum physicists – Einstein, De Broglie, Bohr, Heisenberg, Schrodinger, and Einstein – their best work was in their 20s and early 30s.
But as the field matured, the body of knowledge required to get on the first step increased and the need for more collaborative work increased.
Not surprisingly so also did the age at which many scientists did their best work.
As important as it is, there’s more to achievement than what the brain offers. There are the matters of opportunity, the right teachers, schools, universities, mentors, colleagues and just right times.
For instance, when a field is mature enough but not so mature that it’s still feasible for a young person to make significant contributions, without spending 20 years getting up to speed to ask the right questions and in the case of an experimentalist, find the right laboratory and funding to realize their professional dreams for answering important questions.
There’s also the all-important good fortune to find collaborative colleagues and a setting where it’s possible to do top-notch work.
In the case of Francis Crick, it was finding a kindred spirit in James Watson.
Together they solved the mystery of the structure of DNA from which they surmised how heritable features might be passed on among generations – and all with little more than a lot of discussion, model-making and help from X-ray crystallography findings by Rosalind Franklin to confirm what they suspected – namely the double helical structure of DNA.
Watson was in his 20s and Crick in his 30s at the time.
Einstein was famously without a PhD, without a university appointment and working in a patent office, when at 22 he revealed the relationship between mass and energy, figured out how Brownian motion worked at the atomic/molecular level, and revealed that light was quantal in nature.
And if that wasn’t enough, that time was relative, not light.
He would go on 11 years later to create his masterpiece, general relativity. He should have won two or even three Nobels.
The only one he received was for the quantal nature of light – an important piece but not in the same league as general relativity or even special relativity.
Overall, I still think the young brain does highly imaginative and creative work best but with a tip of the hat to Goodenough, Penrose and all the other late achievers. There’s hope for us.
Dr. William Brown is a professor of neurology at McMaster University and co-founder of the InfoHealth series at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Public Library.