Unaware, but battling hard for aging innovators

BachIn his recent Financial Times article “Better great than never,” Christopher Tyler fights against the notion that only the young are innovative. It’s a battle that can be fought and won again and again, I suppose.

Tyler and his interviewees show no awareness of the work of David Galenson, so the piece comes across as a bit half-baked, without much insight into why innovations happen when they do.

It’s valuable nonetheless. Although Tyler does little more than list artists, scientists and inventors and their ages when they produced great work, his list is an impressive one. He starts with contrasting composers and poets:

Meteoric young Mozart is worshipped while staid old Bach is merely revered, though Bach’s youthful improvisations on the organ shocked his Lutheran congregations. Shelley and Keats, dead by 30, shine more lustrously than old Wordsworth – although it was Wordsworth who was mainly responsible for the Romantic movement.

He touches on the step-by-step methods of experimental innovators, without labeling them as such:

Innovation demands more than enthusiasm. Progress in science is not so much revolutionary as incremental. ”You need knowledge before you make a breakthrough,” says Frank James, professor of the history of science at the Royal Institution of Great Britain. ”It is about suddenly recognising that something is important.”

Galileo didn’t do anything of significance until he was past 40, and Faraday didn’t discover electrical induction until he was older still.

(So) it is no surprise to find that most scientific advances were made by people in their 30s and 40s. Ted Hoff was 34 when he invented the microprocessor. The Cambridge mathematician Andrew Wiles completed his proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem (a puzzle he decided to crack when still a boy of 10) at the age of 42. Charles Babbage was a year older when he designed his ”analytical engine”, forerunner of the programmable computer. Alexander Fleming was 47 when he discovered penicillin.

Gutenberg press reproductionAt the age of 50, Gutenberg invented his moveable-type printing press, William Harvey published his treatise on the circulation of the blood, … And Louis Pasteur was 60 when he discovered a vaccine for anthrax.

The conceptual approach, which tends to be more successful for youthful innovators, is also evident:

Occasionally the innocence of youth can work in a scientist’s favour. Thanks to his ignorance of chemical structure, William Perkin discovered the first aniline dye, mauveine, by accident when he was an 18-year-old lab assistant. …

The intuitive element of many discoveries reinforces the impression that only the young can be good at invention. Scientific solutions are often associated with an apparently heaven-sent flash of insight – Newton reputedly prompted by the apple’s fall to investigate gravity, for example, or Friedrich August Kekule’s dreaming of a serpent eating its tail to give him the shape of the benzene molecule. Most frequently quoted is the experience of Henri Poincare, who got the answer to an abstruse problem of mathematical functions while climbing on to a bus in Caen. So certain was Poincare of his solution that he settled down to chat with a fellow passenger – they were on a geological field trip – and only bothered to verify it when he got home.

Others in Tyler’s list might be examples of older conceptual innovators who make a breakthrough soon after switching careers.

UranusEven more telling, perhaps, are the examples of those who took up their subjects late in life. William Herschel, for example, was a music teacher before he turned to astronomy, discovering the planet Uranus at 43, infrared radiation and the asteroids at 62, and continuing to make observations into his 70s.

…Literature is full of examples of late vocations: the 19th-century German novelist Theodor Fontane was a chemist before turning to literature, and was nearly 60 before writing the novels that influenced Thomas Mann. Cervantes and Thomas Hobbes both wrote their masterpieces late in life.

Other young innovators are listed without explanation:

Newton, like many mathematicians, was an early starter, identifying the spectrum by means of a prism at the age of 24.

Christiaan Huygens invented the pendulum clock at 28.

And older ones too, including the familiar examples of Cezanne and Monet, whom Galenson often cites:

In the arts, too, inventiveness can go on into old age. Beethoven’s late string quartets were music for another age. Verdi wrote his best operas at the end of his career: his Otello is often described as his most perfect fusion of drama and music.

Cezanne, though he started to break with his contemporaries in his 30s, was more than 60 when he completed his futuristic ”Les Grandes Baigneuses”. Monet gave Impressionism its name with his ”Impression: Soleil Levant”, exhibited in 1872; but it was as a 90-year-old that wrestling with the effects of light and water on his pond at Giverny pushed him into abstractionism.

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One Response to Unaware, but battling hard for aging innovators

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