Finding the prime number in the seven ages of man

11th September, 2010

It’s my birthday soon. I won’t confess to my age, although I am relieved to discover that there are still more people in the country who are older than me than are younger.

I am certainly old enough to worry about whether I’m past my prime. But that all depends. David Beckham is certainly past his prime and he’s younger than I am. Footballers peak at 26, if the winners of Fifa’s World Player of the Year award are any guide. Heavyweight boxing champions tend to win the title in their late twenties, although with a spread from 20 (Mike Tyson) to 45 (George Foreman). Sprinting is even more of a young man’s game: Carl Lewis first won Olympic 100m gold at 23, Jesse Owens at 22, and Usain Bolt at 21. The average age at which a male sprinter wins the Olympic gold medal is just under 24.

In more cerebral or creative fields, the story is less clear cut. The youngest Nobel laureate in economics was Kenneth Arrow at the age of 51, but Arrow’s most productive period was in his early thirties. Albert Einstein’s annus mirabilis, 1905, saw the publication of four separate paradigm-shifting articles, and his 26th birthday. Mathematically minded academics such as Arrow and Einstein peak at around the age of 30, according to the psychologist Dean Simonton.

Simonton’s work suggests that each field tends to have an optimum age. Poets peak in their late twenties, novelists and historians in their forties. But this is not universally accepted. The economist David Galenson argues that most fields have two distinct kinds of approach, with two characteristic age profiles. Conceptual artists peak early, while more experimental artists peak much later. The conceptual artist suddenly leaps to new insights, while the experimental artist is a craftsman, gradually perfecting his or her technique over a lifetime. Cézanne, a late developer, said: “I seek in painting”; Picasso, on the other hand, said: “I don’t seek, I find.”

Galenson searches for objective measures of creative success, such as the number of times a picture is reproduced in art history textbooks or the number of times a poem is anthologised.

All this might be little more than a curiosity were it not for the fact that we constantly make judgments about whose creative or scientific endeavours are supported, and at what age. The judgments about age may be implicit but they are real.

Two of my favourite writers, Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer, are worried about this – but from different perspectives. Gladwell, a Galenson fan, worries that our obsession with youthful genius will cause us to reject future late bloomers.

Lehrer has the opposite concern: that funding goes to scientists past their prime. He says the US’s National Institutes of Health (NIH) has been funding ever-older scientists. Thirty years ago, researchers in their early thirties used to receive 10 per cent of NIH grants; by 2006 the figure had fallen to 1 per cent.

Neither problem is easy to solve. Gladwell frets that we may fail to support late-blooming Cézannes, but in their early years who is to distinguish them from talentless daubers? Lehrer wants more funding to be directed to younger scientists, but he may be bumping against a more fundamental force than gerontocratic funding bodies. As the economist Benjamin Jones has discovered, scientists are having to specialise more and study for longer, because the frontiers of knowledge are now much further advanced than they were in Einstein’s day.

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