Read the article written by Malcolm Maxwell carefully and answer the questions that follow it. Use your word words throughout as far as possible.

Albert Einstein once said that “a person who has not made his great contribution to science before the age of 30 will never do so.”

He had a point. When Einstein came up with his first theory of relativity, he was just 26. Charles Darwin developed his theory of evolution in his late twenties and early thirties. Isaac Newton figured out universal gravitation at 24. Indeed, studies have repeatedly shown that in a wide variety of fields, people are at their most productive and creative in early adulthood and then undergo a steady decline.

But while psychologists have studied this curious decline in achievement from virtually every perspective—finding it among both geniuses and laggards, among everyone from composers to chemists—they have no real understanding of why it happens.

Researchers do know that the age at which this peak occurs differs according to profession. People who rely on pure bursts of creativity—for example physicists, theoretical mathematicians, and poets4—tend to produce their most original work in their late twenties and early thirties. The output of novelists, engineers, and medical researchers, on the other hand, tends to rise more slowly, peaking in the late thirties and early forties, and then falling steadily until retirement.

But is this curious achievement cycle an inevitable function of aging? Or is it the result of some other phenomenon that, if understood more completely, could be managed6 to prolong creativity?

With the graying of the United States in recent years, this question has taken on a special urgency. Between 1973 and 1987, for example, the percentage of American PhD-level scientists and engineers under the age of 40 fell from 44 percent to 28.5 percent, leading to widespread speculation about whether the quality of U.S. science may soon be in decline as a result.

In the words of Paul Dirac, who won the Nobel Prize for physics at 31 for work he did when he was barely out of knee pants:

Age is, of course, a fever chill
That every physicist must fear.
He’s better dead than living still
When once he’s past his thirtieth year.

It is difficult to account for the effect of age because the most obvious explanations7—that as people age, their physical health and mental capacity may deteriorate—do not hold up to close scrutiny.

A mathematician whose best days are behind him at 35, for example, clearly is not any less intelligent than at 25. And while early theories made much of the supposed physical infirmities of middle age, studies have yielded no evidence that, say, the Muse suddenly returns to poets who take up triathalons or the Pritikin diet at age 50.

Another common idea is that as people enter middle age, they become either distracted by new responsiblities or lulled into complacency by academic tenure or job promotions.

“As people get older, successful scientists get more and more drawn into gatekeeping activities,” said University of Nebraska at Omaha economist Arthur Diamond. “They are made editors. They are made heads of the department. They are sent more papers.”

But none of this fully explains the differences among fields. Why should pure mathematicians, for example, be swept up into such activities before engineers? And other observers have pointed out that the social demands of early adulthood—courtship, establishing a family, financial difficulty—are potentially as much of an impediment to productivity as professional gatekeeper responsiblities.

More than 100 years ago, psychologist G.M. Beard pioneered a different approach, arguing that productivity was the combination of enthusiasm and experience. Enthusiasm, he said, is abundant in the beginning of professional life, then declines gradually. Experience, by contrast, starts from zero and grows over the course of a career.

According to Beard, enthusiasm without experience renders original but unfocused effort, while experience without enthusiasm results in uninspired work. But during those years when the two curves intersect, Beard maintained, productive creativity would be at its peak.

The strength of this theory is that it explains why peaks differ from field to field. Poetry, some say, requires more creativity than experience, so poets do their best work in their twenties. But historians, for example, might need a vast amount of experience and just a touch of enthusiasm, so their work might not begin to shine until much later.

But Beard’s ideas are too simplistic for modern psychologists. For one thing, his theory implies that at either side of a career peak, work would suffer not just in quantity but also in quality, since most output would be ruined by either too little experience or too little enthusiasm.

But do people really go into these kinds of pre- and post-peak slumps11? A number of contemporary researchers say that, in fact, the ratio of high-quality work to poor-quality work never changes during a typical career. In other words, a genius biologist12 who wins awards for 70 percent of his papers at age 25 will still have the same high percentage of brilliant papers at age 60. The difference is that in youth he might write 10 papers a year but later in life drop to two a year.

University of California at Davis psychologist Dean Keith Simonton argues for a more complex explanation. Like Beard, he assumes that ideas come tumbling out at the beginning of a career. He says, however, that peak creativity comes not with experience but when individuals complete the secondary step of giving those ideas shape.

Simonton’s explanations for why different careers peak at different times is that some ideas take longer to develop than others. A poet may need just five years, an epidemiologist 25.

Simonton says his theory leads to two happy conclusions. The first is that getting and developing ideas is not a biological function of age but rather the typical consequence of being faced with a new intellectual environment. As a result, an aging society need not be unproductive if people enter new fields after their productivity peaks in a previous field.

The other conclusion is that when you peak depends on how many ideas you have. The legendary 19th century mathematician K.F. Gauss, for example, is said to have begun his career with so many ideas that even a lifetime of feverish activity was not enough to explore them all.

Even when he was told his wife was dying he is said to have been so gripped by the urgency of his scientific mission that he muttered: “Tell her to wait a moment ’til I’m through.”

Gauss, needless to say, never peaked.

(adapted from The Washington Post)


1 Write another title for this article.

2 Explain what happens to people’s work as they get older.

3 What have studies failed to show?

4 In what way do ‘physicists, theoretical mathematicians, and poets’ tend to create their work?

5 What often happens to novelists’ work when they are about 40?

6 Explain ‘managed’ as it is used in this context.

7 What is the writer’s opinion of the ‘explanations’?

8 Explain the factors that may reduce young people’s productivity.

9 When, according to Beard, does experience develop? How does its absence harm people’s work?

10 What fact supports Beard’s theory?

11 What are ‘post-peak slumps’?

12 What effect does age have on the work done by a ‘genius biologist’?

13 What do Beard’s and Simonton’s theories have in common? How do they differ?

14 What, according to Simonton, should people do when they have passed the most successful part of their careers?

15 In a paragraph of about 90 words, summarise all the reasons that have been suggested to explain why professional achievement declines with age.

Sample Answers