Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

To be a great mathematician/physicist, must one start young?

  1. Oct 19, 2015 #1
    I know that all great chess/weiqi players start at a young a age.

    Is this also true for mathematicians and physicist?

    Could anyone give examples of great mathematicians and physicists who started late in life?
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 19, 2015 #2


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    How "late in life"? Most perfectly successful career physicists start university at the same time everyone else does - 17 or 18.
  4. Oct 19, 2015 #3
    Well, they may start university at the same age as everyone else. However, If they have parents who taught them the basics of mathematics at the age when most kids are learning how to read from their parents, then will that have an effect?

    For example, I heard that Chomsky taught his children set theory at a really really early age.
  5. Oct 19, 2015 #4


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    This varies, I'm sure. Parents that encourage an interest in science in their children will mean that their children see science as a possible career choice. On the other hand, I have colleagues whose parents absolutely discouraged an interest in science. It depends. I certainly don't think it is required. You don't need to be a child prodigy to be a successful physicist as an adult.
  6. Oct 19, 2015 #5


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    Of course it helps to have a parent or some other kind of guidance early in life.

    But it's not a necessary condition. There's a myth that floats around out there that you have to have completed a PhD by the time you're 26 in order to truly become a physicist. But the fact of the matter is that age doesn't really matter unless you're talking about extremes.

    We often get posts here from people who discover a little later in life that they enjoy physics or mathematics and express a concern that they're starting too late to really pursue that interest.

    From my point of view whether or not you pursue an academic interest is a lot more about the constraints on your individual life. It's perfectly plausible for someone who's 30 to enroll in university, work his or her way to a PhD in 10 years, compete for post-docs and then tenure-track positions and eventually become a professor (subject of course to the same small probabilities as anyone else). You don't see this happen all that often because (i) most people who have an interest in academic do discover it earlier, (ii) later in life people have different constraints - partners to consider, families to support, debts to pay off, etc., and (iii) the probability of becoming a professor, even for someone who is quite bright, is rather low to begin with.
  7. Oct 20, 2015 #6
    Whether early parental intervention can produce a great scientist is certainly possible but I believe that the child must have an innate interest and ability in the subject to proceed to the pinnacle of their field. The parents can give the "tools" for success in a field but it is up to the child to pick them up and use them. Conversely if the parents do nothing the child who has the interest and ability will find a way to suceed
  8. Oct 20, 2015 #7
    No, but it certainly helps. The culture I think causes more push to or away from science than parents. I think one of the most important contributions to science is generating interest in it in the next generation. Bill Nye has probably had a bigger impact on science as a whole than Peter Higgs.
  9. Oct 22, 2015 #8


    User Avatar

    To offer an extreme view, just for the sake of argument, you might say that all great physicists and mathematicians start at childhood, always. People who have these sorts of minds will always be counting blocks as kids, or multiplying numbers in their head for fun while bored during car rides, or meticulously tiling a piece of paper with octagons during art class. This sort of person will develop the mathematical, logical, and visual-spatial parts of their minds whether or not they get a formal education. When these people start university at a later age they always do fine, even if they're already well into adulthood.

    You could definitely argue that it's still better to start young, but I don't think it's any more catastrophic than getting to a movie a few minutes late. For the few minutes you'll look goofy asking everyone to catch you up on what has been happening, but by the end of the movie you'll basically be on the same page as everyone else.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook