Scientific progress is making most ground-breaking academic achievements occur later on in researchers’ lives. This in itself is not a bad thing, of course, but could it be signalling the end of the polymath (or the intellectual polygamist, as Carl Djerassi would prefer it be called)?
Back in the early 19th century you could grasp a field with a little reading and a ready wit. But the distinction between the dabbling and doing is more demanding these days, because breaking new ground is so much harder. There is so much further to trek through other researchers’ territory before you can find a patch of unploughed earth of your own.
Slightly under half of [Nobel laureates] did their path-breaking work in their 30s, a smattering in their 20s—Einstein, at 26, was unusually precocious. Yet when the laureates of 1998 did their seminal research, they were typically six years older than the laureates of 1873 had been. It was the same with great inventors.
Once you have reached the vanguard, you have to work harder to stay there, especially in the sciences. So many scientists are publishing research in each specialism that merely to keep up with the reading is a full-time job. “The frontier of knowledge is getting longer,” says Professor Martin Rees, the president of the Royal Society […] “It is impossible now for anyone to focus on more than one part at a time.”