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Don’t have that Nobel Prize yet? There may still be time

Albert Einstein was working in the Swiss patent ofice when, in his mid-20s, he had his breakout “miracle year,” publishing several papers that would alter the course of modern physics. Others blossom later in life.
Albert Einstein was working in the Swiss patent ofice when, in his mid-20s, he had his breakout “miracle year,” publishing several papers that would alter the course of modern physics. Others blossom later in life. (Globes staff photo illustration)

Don’t have that Nobel Prize yet? There may still be time.

Researchers from Ohio State University say there are two different times in people’s lives that they reach peak creativity, one that comes early in their careers and another that more often arrives later in life.

The researchers looked at Nobel Prize winners in economics and found their peak creativity came either in their mid-20s or in their mid-50s.

In previous work, the researchers found similar patterns in the arts and sciences, the university said.

“We believe what we found in this study isn’t limited to economics, but could apply to creativity more generally,” Bruce Weinberg, lead author of the study and professor of economics at Ohio State, said in the statement.

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“Many people believe that creativity is exclusively associated with youth, but it really depends on what kind of creativity you’re talking about.”

Weinberg did the study with David Galenson, professor of economics at the University of Chicago. The study was published last month in a special issue of the journal De Economist.

The study found that the Nobel Prize winners who did their most creative work early in their careers were “conceptual” innovators who thought “outside the box,” challenged conventional wisdom, and came up with new ideas suddenly, the university said.

The late-bloomers were “experimental” innovators who accumulated knowledge through their careers and found groundbreaking ways to analyze, interpret, and synthesize the information, the university said.

“The long periods of trial and error often required for important experimental innovations make them tend to occur late in an innovator’s career,” according to the study, which is a revised version of a 2005 working paper.

“Experimental innovators work inductively, accumulating knowledge from experience. Conceptual innovators work deductively, applying abstract principles. Innovators whose work is more conceptual do their most important work earlier in their careers than those whose work is more experimental,” the study abstract said.

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Weinberg said, “Whether you hit your creative peak early or late in your career depends on whether you have a conceptual or experimental approach.”

The study suggested that the different life cycles of creativity, based on two different approaches taken by academics, had implications for academic hiring. Some middle-aged professors may just be hitting their stride, the authors suggested.

The researchers looked at 31 Nobel economics laureates, categorizing them by whether they were conceptual or experimental innovators and then analyzing when they did their most influential work.

The researchers used two different methods of determining when the laureates did their best work. For conceptual laureates, one method found that creativity peaked at 29, while the other found it peaked at 25. For experimental laureates, the ages were 57 or the mid-50s.

Joshua Hartshorne, a cognitive science professor at Boston College who has studied how intelligence changes as people age, said in an e-mail that the paper was a “jumping-off point” and contained “interesting preliminary findings in need of confirmation.”

Hartshorne’s research has found that different cognitive skills peak at different ages.

Generally speaking, he said, “The ability to think quickly and flexibly seems to peak in early adulthood. However, aspects of intelligence that require experience (such as spotting analogies) tend to peak in the 50s or even later.”

But he also noted that there are other factors at play. For one thing, he said, sociological forces may play a role in the fact that older scientists make more “experimental” discoveries.

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“Our society is set up such that older people have more money and staff at their disposal than younger people, so it’s going to be a lot easier to run experiments,” he said.


Martin Finucane can be reached at martin.finucane@globe.com