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Breakthrough Discoveries, Creativity - Is age a big factor?

Posted on 14-Mar-2019 by Dr. Sridhar Iyer, Head Global BD
Breakthrough Discoveries, Creativity - Is age a big factor?

As soon as I saw the below-mentioned news,1 it was not only pleasing but also exciting.

First about the news itself: All these years’ organic chemists/ medicinal chemists experienced this problem about the removal of triphenylphosphine oxide (TPPO) when using the reagent triphenylphosphine (TPP). Also, you would always hear from process R&D scientists, things like “Ah you guys can get away with using reagents like TPP etc. without worrying about the scalability and the removal of things like TPPO in a practical way”. But this is true. We almost thought of alternatives like using other easily removable phosphine oxides or do the reaction on small scale with column chromatography (sometimes multiple times). This problem was solved as shown in the above news by simply adding ZnCl2 to the product with TPPO in some organic polar solvents (ZnCl2(TPPO)2 precipitates out). Exciting isn’t it. But what was more pleasing and exciting was that the chemist who solved this was 85 years old. Yes, you read it right-85 years old! Imagine an 85-year-old with a lab coat working in a lab or still active around the lab! For more details read the original publication.2

This leads to an interesting debate: does creativity decline drastically with age? Or is it a myth? There are no clear answers except that for most, it does decline with age but some are able to discover important things even at a late stage. Then what are the trends? An interesting article which analyzed Nobel Prize winners in physics, chemistry & medicine between 1901 and 2008 compared several factors like age of scientists when they made their breakthrough discovery for which they got Nobel, the age when they received Nobel and the correlation with the field. The results are interesting.3 Results are beautifully summarised.4

Perhaps the notion of scientific breakthroughs being made by young scientists typically before the age of 30 or around that age is due to the fact that the romantic era of physics (quantum physics) had plenty of such examples: Bragg, Einstein, Dirac, and Heisenberg… that was when physics underwent a complete change. But as the research suggests, this is probably the only period when this happened. From then to now the age when physicists made an important contribution has increased. There are other things like if you are into theoretical science and at a cusp of something new where old knowledge is being transformed by completely new ideas, it may be true that age might matter – younger the better! But these are not so commonplace as people believe. Again the situation in chemistry and medicine also points to the above, where the age when most of the breakthrough discovery was made was typically between 36-46 years.5

Of course, the yardstick in all the above data was around Nobel Prize winners. What about mathematics? In general, it is believed that this suits the young. But again we should analyze both the Fields Medal and Abel Prize winners in a similar way. The Fields Medal is offered to younger scientists so the age of discovery most likely would be young. But for Abel, my guess is, it would be a somewhat older age when discoveries were made. Anyways a proper research would be interesting here.

Before we end, let’s look at the chess as a game that exemplifies intelligence. What has been the trend? Well! here if we look at the trend the game is truly moving towards younger players simply because one has to “think”/ ”calculate” for a longer period of time and with the least mistake in every move or the best move each time. Here beyond a point, the older players could start making mistakes as the game becomes longer. This is now well known. While in modern “life” 40 is the new 30 in “chess” 40 is the new 50. No wonder the current world champion Magnus Carlson is in his 20s; while the last world champion Vishwanath Anand (5 times world champion) is 47-clearly a change of guard. But is that so bad? Well no! Vishwanath Anand continuous to be in the top 10 chess players even at this age and has been in the top 10 for the last 27 years. He was in the top 5 continuously for 16 years in his career-amazing longevity at the top.6

When asked by many journalists when he will retire, Anand’s answer is as long as I enjoy and learn new things in chess I will keep playing. Recently he has been able to defeat some of the younger players with higher ratings using novel chess moves. Inspiring indeed. He competes on equal terms with his fellow top ten players whose ages are 26, 25, 27, 24, 25, 29, 35, 32 & 42. As you can see many of these players in 20s are roughly half his age. But there are collateral damages like inconsistency in performance, nerves not being strong all the times & making a mistake in longish games as you grow old and Anand experiences all these. It’s difficult. But what a joy when he defeats a 20 something top chess player using a novel sequence of moves. He can still teach these young kids a lesson or two every now and then.

Bottom line there is hope for “active” scientists who are in their 40s that in the next 10 years if they enjoy their work they might discover something useful. Well, no such luck for ex-scientists who are doing Business development or Operations or are in Management/Strategy.

There is a beautiful conversation on the new (young) vs old (experienced) generation - wonderfully captured in a scene from the “Skyfall”, where Bond (middle aged) meets Q (young Q) in the art gallery. Though the excerpt of this communication is mentioned below, the same may be enjoyed following this link.7:

Q: It always makes me feel a bit melancholy. Grand old warship being ignominiously haunted away to scrap... The inevitability of time, don't you think? What do you see?

James Bond: A bloody big ship. Excuse me.

Q: 007. I'm your new Quartermaster.
James Bond: You must be joking.

Q: Why, because I'm not wearing a lab coat?
James Bond: Because you still have spots.

Q: My complexion is hardly relevant.
James Bond: Your competence is.

Q: Age is no guarantee of efficiency.
James Bond: And youth is no guarantee of innovation.

Q: Well, I'll hazard I can do more damage on my laptop sitting, in my pajamas, before my first cup of Earl Grey, than you can do in a year in the field.
James Bond: Oh, so why do you need me?

Q: Every now and then a trigger has to be pulled.
James Bond: Or not pulled. It's hard to know which in your pajamas. Q.

Q: 007.


1: http://www.rochester.edu/newscenter/chemistry-donald-batesky-makes-late-career-discovery-278352/
2: http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/acs.joc.7b00459
3:http://www.pnas.org/content/108/47/18910.full
4: http://www.lindau-nobel.org/geniuses-are-getting-older/
5: http://www.nature.com/news/2011/111107/full/news.2011.632.html;https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/no-spring-chickens/;http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-37578899
6: http://www.thehindu.com/sport/other-sports/viswanathan-anand-among-the-elite-for-26-yearsand-counting/article19180534.ece; http://www.thehindu.com/sport/other-   sports/viswanathan-anand-the-evergreen/article19192538.ece
7: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=57Uy9jPxxwI

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