An article in the NY times today, by George Johnson, quotes Martin Rees about what scientists can do as thy grow old: Become an administrator; content yourself with doing science that will probably be mediocre; or strike off half-cocked into unfamiliar territory, and quickly get in over your head. Rees says that “in contrast to composers, there are few scientists whose last works are their greatest.”
Um ... why? Could there be something wrong with the way science is conducted, that prevents old and wise scientists from making wise contributions to their beloved fields? Science moves fast enough, perhaps, that the techniques of a particular field, even its terminology and paradigms, will be unfamiliar to the elderly, making it hard for them to apply their wisdom to anything that is current. In contrast, the classical composer, throughout his life, develops his own technique and builds upon it, at his own pace.
But I'm not persuaded by this argument. In the last twenty years there have been breakthroughs in fields that had stagnated for many years. Often, these breakthroughs required someone to examine what had been taken for granted, to apply thoughtful ideas from other disciplines, or to find a new way to do experiments. It ought to be possible for some of these breakthroughs to come from older scientists who have had a long time to think about their field. So I ask again:
Has the world managed to structure scientific investigation in such a way as to prevent elderly, deep scientific thinkers from making thoughtful contributions?
I will blog just a few times in the next few weeks. See you all, regularly, in mid-november!