Home' Technology Review : October 2005 Contents TECHNOLOGY REVIEW
C society get
bolder as it grows older? That
question a ects people of all
ages---especially those living
in the United States, Europe,
and Japan, which are expected to have
fewer workers supporting more retirees.
According to Science and Engineering
Indicators: 2002, issued by the National
Science Board (NSB), an independent
legislative and executive advisory body
established by the U.S. Congress in 1950,
America's science and engineering work-
force will continue to grow in coming de-
cades, but its average age is likely to rise.
Will scienti c workers in their 50s and 60s
continue to make valuable contributions?
The report avoided asking whether ag-
ing impairs creativity. If it does, then the
growth of our productivity and improve-
ment of our standard of living might be
in trouble. There is already a shortage of
young Americans in research; in 2003 the
NSB expressed concern over the United
States' dependence on foreign PhDs.
Scientists, often older ones, have for
years questioned how long they can stay
productive. G. H. Hardy set the tone in his
1940 classic, A Mathematician's Apology.
"Like any other mathematician who has
passed sixty," Hardy confessed, "I have no
longer the freshness of mind, the energy,
or the patience to carry on e ectively with
my proper job." He continued that "mathe-
matics...is a young man's game."
The age lore of other sciences can be
similarly misleading. The Nobel laureate
physicist Paul Dirac has suggested, tongue
in cheek, that a physicist over 30 was as
good as dead, and the physicist-historian
Abraham Pais wrote of Einstein after 1925
(when Einstein was 46) that, as far as his
work went, he might as well have gone
shing. And yet the sociologist Harriet
Zuckerman, in her landmark 1977 book,
Scientific Elite, observed that U.S. Nobel-
ists received their prizes for work done
when they were, on average, nearly 39. Sir
Nevill Mott won a Nobel in physics for his
Great biologists seem especially hardy.
The German naturalist Alexander von
Humboldt successfully sur veyed harsh,
remote areas of the Russian Empire for
gold elds after turning 60, and began pub-
lishing the 19th century's greatest work of
synthesis, Cosmos, at age 76; he had com-
pleted 2,000 pages by his death at 89, in
1859. More recently, Harvard University's
Ernst Mayr was still writing papers at 100.
Why, then, do certain researchers stag-
nate while others ourish? Some might
be internalizing what Zucker man called
the "mythology" of aging in science. But
another factor is that any education has
built-in limits. Even Einstein may have
been bumping against them. Scientists
over 40 face a choice: continue using the
endowments that have served them well
but are challenged by a new generation, or
turn to new subjects.
Thus Humboldt---who had earned his
fame in the tropics---turned to the bleak
North. In his early 50s, Wilhelm Ostwald
resigned his chair of physical chemistry at
the University of Leipzig to pursue philoso-
phy, color theory, and the promotion of
scienti c knowledge. He is honored not
only for the chemical discoveries that led
to his Nobel Prize in 1909 but for his work
on an early version of the hypertext concept.
For engineering and invention, the im-
plications of an aging brain trust are quite
apparent. There, too, young people are re-
sponsible for many basic innovations. But
that doesn't mean they will stagnate as
they age. Thomas Edison was in his late
60s when he developed the disc phono-
graph. Shumpei Yamazaki of Japan, the
inventor of ash memory, has at 62 just
displaced Edison in the Guinness book of
records, after pointing out that his 3,245
patents exceeded Edison's 2,332. Othmar
Ammann designed New York's Verrazano-
Narrows Bridge in his late 70s; the Swiss
engineer Christian Menn completed the
revolutionary cable-stayed Zakim Bunker
Hill Bridge in Boston at 75.
What is the secret of such men and
women? Partly, it is that they do not ex-
pect the ashes of mathematical insight
that may indeed be the prerogative of the
plastic youthful brain, but instead forge
new syntheses aided by experience.
For some, this drawing on experience
can become an ever renewing source of
inspiration. Germany's most proli c pat-
enter, Artur Fischer, made a breakthrough
as a young man in 1948 with Germany's,
and perhaps the world's, rst electrical
system for triggering a photographic ash-
gun automatically when the shutter is re-
leased. He then applied his research on
plastic parts in projection screens to the
development of a bestselling nylon wall
anchor for the building trades, millions of
which are still made daily by the r m he
founded. The principle of this plastic-
sheathed bolt in turn became a key ele-
ment in his line of model-building kits,
Fischertechnik, which is used by indus-
trial prototypers as well as schoolchildren.
At 85 he has developed a system for mak-
ing biodegradable toys from potato starch.
As Fischer has aged, the markets for his
ideas have grown younger. To attract more
kids to invention, it might help to show
them that talent has no expiration date.
Live Long and Tinker
Some remain inventive their whole lives.
Thomas Edison, the inventor of the disc
phonograph, pictured above at age 77.
Megascope Ed Tenner
IMAGES COURTESY OF U.S. DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR, NATIONAL PARK SERVICE, EDISON NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE
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