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Greatest work of physicist done in their 20s?

  1. Jan 23, 2013 #1
    Many of the world's greatest physicists made their biggest breakthroughs in their 20s- Dirac, Einstein, Pauli, Heisenberg, and Bohr, for example. (Einstein's GR was published in his 30s I believe, but in his 20s he published papers on SR, Brownian motion, and the photoelectric effect).

    Is this still common nowadays in the physics community? Is physics really a young man's (edit: or woman's) game?
    Last edited: Jan 23, 2013
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 23, 2013 #2
    No, Emmy Noether was 23 when she came up with her work on differential invariants.
  4. Jan 23, 2013 #3

    Any apparent sexism was by all means not intentional. I'm sure you know what I meant. :)
  5. Jan 23, 2013 #4
    It's not just physics. 25 is a kind of cut off point after which all people in all fields seem to stop making great strides.
  6. Jan 23, 2013 #5


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    I think you forgot the greatest of them all...Newton
  7. Jan 23, 2013 #6
    Great question Fiz! The answer is that we don't know because nobody has made any significant contribution to science since Einstein. Before that there was Newton, then Galileo, and you know the rest. And don't give me this "what about Ed Whitten, or Gell-man, or Guth, etc" stuff, all these guys (and gals:redface:) have made relatively (no pun intended) small evolutionary contributions to physics/science. We haven't seen anything truly revolutionary since Einstein, in the true sense of what a revolution is. Arguably the last major scientific breakthrough that could be considered a "game changer" was Watson and Crick's model of DNA, and that was in the 50's! Incidently, Watson was in his 20's back then. The Higgs boson stuff is majorly over-hyped in my opinion. This particle was predicted a long time ago because the standard model had to have it to maintain consistency. It is no revolutionary discovery.

    That said, I think you could make a counter argument to your question. These days, its the old guys (and gals--sorry gals, if you want to be included you have to be included with the old people too-that includes you Lisa) that are making all the headlines and doing the drip drip grinding evolutionary work that progresses scince/physics. Again, we haven't had any young buck (or buckess) scientific celebrities in the field the since quantum mechanics in the 30's with the likes of Dirac, Heisenberg, etc. It's pretty straightfoward, if a new revolutionary idea comes around, it will most likely be the younger bunch that makes the important strides in the field. It just is that there hasn't been anything like that in a very long time. So for now we have to be satisfied with evolutionary and relatively boring contributions made by the old farts at places like the Perimeter institute, etc.
  8. Jan 24, 2013 #7
    One thing you have to keep in mind is that the times have changed a lot, and physics research is conducted totally different today then it was 100 years ago. Out of the young physicists that you list every single one lived at the time of the beginnings of quantum physics, a time when there was a ton of great discoveries to be made (relatively easily once the first step was taken). Today, the best discoveries are much more advanced/subtle and aren't made by one person alone, but by a whole team of PhDs and postdocs lead by a professor (who gets the credit) and you can't get to that leadership position when you're in your 20s. Thus, todays discoveries are mostly done by older people.
  9. Jan 24, 2013 #8
    James C Maxwell Publish his first Research Paper at age of 14.
    Newton Publish Binomial Theorem as First Paper at age of 21.

    Pascal, at age 16 written a book on Geometry and at age 19 invented Adding Machine.
    James Watt, at age 25 Steam Engine.
    Samuel Colt, Revolver Model at 16 wood, at 17 metal and age 21 original invented.
    Graham Bell, at age 20 dreamt about telephone and age 27 invented.

    And if I going to list Thomas Edison then the page may be full.

    Also don't think about the age. In todays world a saying is that "If you not give a Ground Breaking Research before age 30 then don't think about the Nobel Prize in your dream".
  10. Jan 24, 2013 #9
    This is garbage, most recent Nobel prize winners since Dirac have done their prize-winning work well past their 30's. People say these things because it creates drama, not because their is any truth to it.
  11. Jan 24, 2013 #10
    That means your PhD Research Paper is Ground Breaking,It's not about his best thesis only few person's first PhD Thesis leads them to Nobel Prize.

    This is my country (India) where everyone who is talented want to be Royal Society Fellow. Only may be only one of the world get Newtonian Fellowship.As in General they select 44 felllows every year.
  12. Jan 24, 2013 #11


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    Research done by PhD students are very rarely ground-breaking. In part because no sensible supervisor gives a student a task that can fail complettely. As a PhD student you are LEARNING how to do independent research, but this does not include picking our own problems. You won't be allowed to do that until you are a senior researcher, which nowadays usually means after one or two post-docs (i.e. you will be >30 years old).

    100 or even 50 years ago people where hired as senior researchers when they were in their early 20s. Things are VERY different now.

    Moreover, because research done by PhD students is usually an extension of the work by the supervisor most would not consider work done by a student to be fully independent. There are several cases where e.g. Nobel prizes for experimental work has gone to the supervisor, even though the person who was in the lab when the discovery was made was his student. Jocelyn Bell is the most famous example, but BE condensates is a more recent example.
  13. Jan 24, 2013 #12
    The truth is, though, people's analytical faculties hit the plateau at 25. There won't be any groundbreaking later work above that plateau. If you couldn't have done the work at 25, you won't be able to do it later.
  14. Jan 24, 2013 #13
    "the truth is?" Are you sure about that? Sounds like a cop out to me, an excuse for not doing anything significant. I'll tell you right here why the mid 20's seem to be the magical time for creative works, it is because the brain develops rostro-caudally into the visual areas starting at about 23. This is a "flash in the pan" window where physicists/scientists/artists of any kind get some kind of mojo to do their great works. I know this, because I was a beach bum in Hawaii in my early 20's content as could be when all of a sudden I had this nagging urge to solve the mysteries of the human mind. At that point I was cursed to solve it.
  15. Jan 24, 2013 #14


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    Grigori Perelman was 37 years old when he proved the Poincare conjecture. Andrew Wiles was 40 when he proved Fermat's Last Theorem.

    Both these problems had been around for well over 100 years when they were solved.
    The solutions to both problems required math that had been developed for over a century that took many, many years to learn and master, and neither Perelman nor Wiles would have been able to do their work in their early 20s simply because they would not have had the neccesary background.

    The same is true for most problems. Science is wastly more complex today and there is a lot of competition meaning all "low hanging fruit" gets solved very quickly.
    it takes years and years of training before you've reached a point where you can do something truly original.
  16. Jan 24, 2013 #15
    Yes, I think this is the case. I still think that a young buckster could come in and revolutionize the field, but it would take a lot of courage, so probably not likely. The success of quantum mechanics in powering your laptop experience and general relatively in powering your car's GPS prove formidable obstacles for some young buckster trying to shake things up. But that's exactly what we need, someone to shake things up. My guess is that most newbies entering the field are going to be intimidated by the abovementioned physics accomplishments and will submit to the standard physics schooling which is just going to create more brian cox's, brian greens, michio kakus, and othres who marvel at the status quo of quantum weirdness
  17. Jan 24, 2013 #16
    Here's what I'm saying: no one ever picked up their first physics book at age 25 and went on to do something great in physics. No one ever started learning their first musical instrument at age 25 and went on to become a virtuoso. No one ever learned to read and write at 25 and went on to write the great American novel. When people do remarkable things all the important training and learning for that happened before 25. This is not some controversial cranky opinion of mine. It's universally understood to be true. It's why we send people to school as kids and don't wait till they're 20.

    I think people should continue their education indefinitely. It's great if someone picks up their first guitar or book on neurology at age 50. It will enrich their life. However, I think it would be foolish for anyone doing something like that to think they're going to become groundbreakers in those fields with that late of a start. Likewise, if you're a mediocre mathematician or physics student at 25 it's extremely unlikely you're going to have some kind of miracle, late blooming into a ground breaker.
  18. Jan 24, 2013 #17
    I don't know anything about either of these two people but I understand what you're saying about the time it takes to merely learn the background math to tackle these problems.

    This doesn't change what I said, though. They were the mathematicians they were at 25. The rest of the time was getting more education.
  19. Jan 24, 2013 #18
    Are you effing serious?! Is this the kind of message you want to send to all us old farts out there trying to solve the TOE? How dare you?!
  20. Jan 24, 2013 #19
    I thought you were trying to unravel the mysteries of the human mind. Talk about too many irons in the fire.
  21. Jan 24, 2013 #20
    Well, the mind is kinda part of everything, isn't it?:smile:
  22. Jan 24, 2013 #21
    I don't agree with this way of thinking. People may seem to "plateau" at 25, but I wouldn't treat that as a law. Greatest work is also a vague term to use since it doesn't necessarily have to be groundbreaking to be great, it just has to become famous. If fame is what the ultimate goal of your science career is, you might want to rethink things.
  23. Jan 24, 2013 #22
    Take your choice:
    http://books.google.be/books?id=BCM...&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=Weierstrass &f=false (link doesn't always work, just search for Weierstrass till you get to his biography)
  24. Jan 25, 2013 #23
    After that point the urge isn't really there. You have to be motivated. You have to want to learn in order to make discoveries if you are fortunate enough to find something.
  25. Jan 25, 2013 #24
    Thank you all for your input! It was all very enjoyable to read.

    It's very true that things are very different nowadays compared to, say, back in the 1920s. First off, the way physics research is conducted nowadays is greatly different. And of course, just the large amount of physics knowledge existing today would take a long time for someone to be competent in. For example, most physics students will probably be at least in their mid to late 20s before they're competent in QFT.

    DiracPool brings up an interesting point. If a very revolutionary new idea appears in physics it will likely be a young bunch pushing it forward.

    And thanks to those who pointed out great discoveries made by mathematicians/physicists in their later years. I'd also like to point out that Schrodinger was 38 when he formulated his equation. And his equation is definitely a pretty big deal!
  26. Feb 22, 2013 #25


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