On the myths of creative personality and the difficulty of studying it scientifically

Albert Einstein said that if a scientist has not made a great contribution to science before the age of 30 he would never do it. He published his theory of special relativity when he was 26 years old and was an unknown young physicist working at the Patent Office in Bern. Likewise, other leading physicists of the early twentieth century, such as Werner Heisenberg, Paul Dirac and Wolfgang Pauli, made their great contributions when they were in their twenties. But the romantic image of juvenile scientific genius, certainly eroded by the passage of time and the increasing complexity of science, has collapsed with a study on the dynamics of creativity in the Nobel Prizes.

A physicist is far from being dead at the age of 30, like Einstein, Dirac and many others believed. So are a chemist or medical researcher. The historical and biographical analysis of the 525 scientists awarded with a Nobel Prize in Physics, Chemistry or Medicine from 1900 to 2008 reveals that the average age at which a first-rate scientist makes his great discovery has been dragging over time and is now closer to fifty than thirty. If in the early twentieth century was 36.9 years for Physics, 36.1 for Chemistry and 37.6 for Medicine, in the last three decades has increased to 50.3, 46.3 and 45 years, respectively.

This study, published in the November 7 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) by Benjamin F. Jones and Bruce A. Weinberg (doi: 10.1073/pnas.1102895108) shows that the relationship between age and scientific creativity has changed much more depending on time than on the area of knowledge. If before 1905, 69% of chemists, 63% of physicians and 60% of the physicists were under 40 years old when they made the discovery by which they win the Nobel Prize –and even 20% of them were under 30 years– now to make a great scientific contribution before 30 is truly exceptional.

The authors of this study suggest that scientific precocity exists in essentially theoretical works, which have an important abstract and deductive component; and the age at which a relevant contribution is made tends to lengthen by the accumulation of knowledge. To make an innovation, a scientist must first overcome the difficult task of mastering his field of knowledge, as concluded the great expert on the study of genius and creativity, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, after studying the life and work of nearly a hundred contemporary artists and scientists.

The formula of creativity, of course, is not a mathematical formula. Innovation is multifaceted and probably just as polymorphic as human intelligence. That’s by it is so difficult to define and study. The romantic myth of genius (juvenile, to be exact) has tremendously distorted the concept of creativity, an ability that is otherwise intrinsically human and needs to be trained like any other capacity. You can be creative in many ways, in many areas and beyond youth. Scientific creativity is certainly very demanding, but is the artistic creativity or, without going any further, the clinic one any less? To be a good doctor, you must master your own field and also to be able to display an understanding and empathetic imagination takes years and years of passion and training.