When James Watson was 24 years old, he spent more time thinking about women than work, according to his memoir “Genes, Girls and Gamow.” His hair was unkempt and his letters home were full of references to “wine-soaked lunches.” But when Mr. Watson wasn’t chasing after girls, he was hard at work in his Cambridge lab, trying to puzzle out the structure of DNA. In 1953, when Mr. Watson was only 25, he co-wrote one of the most important scientific papers of all time.
Scientific revolutions are often led by the youngest scientists. Isaac Newton was 23 when he began inventing calculus; Albert Einstein published several of his most important papers at the tender age of 26; Werner Heisenberg pioneered quantum mechanics in his mid-20s. At the time, these men were all inexperienced and immature, and yet they managed to transform their fields.
Youth and creativity have long been interwoven; as Samuel Johnson once said, “Youth is the time of enterprise and hope.” Unburdened by old habits and prejudices, a mind in fresh bloom is poised to see the world anew and come up with fresh innovations—solutions to problems that have sometimes eluded others for ages…
… In recent years, psychologists have begun studying the relationship between age and creativity, trying to understand how increasing experience affects the way we think.
One theory suggests that creative output obeys a predictable pattern over time, which is best represented by an “inverted U curve.” The shape of the curve captures the steep rise and slow fall of individual creativity, with performance peaking after a few years of work before it starts to decline in middle age. By the time scientists are eminent and well-funded—this tends to happen in the final years of their careers—they are probably long past their creative prime.