At what age do we do our greatest work?

Field Age           20                 30                 40                 50                 60                 70
Athletics 24                                                                          
Music 27                                                                          
Mathematics 33                                                                          
Physics 36                                                                          
Exploration 36                                                                          
Innovation 37                                                                          
Philosophy 44                                                                          
Literature 45                                                                          
Art 49                                                                          
Architecture 56                                                                          

Notes

The conventional wisdom is that you're past it before you're even in your thirties, especially in fields like mathematics and music, famous for child prodigies

I refuse to believe it. Just because Einstein discovered photons, declared that e = mc² and laid the foundations of relativity in his mid-twenties, it doesn't mean I won't succeed in similarly revolutionising physics at a somewhat riper age. I admit that I'm making slow progress, but I'm hoping to have cracked it by the time I'm in my mid-seventies.

To test the conventional wisdom, I took ten of the greatest achievers of all time in a variety of different fields, and plotted how old they were at the times of their greatest achievements; move your mouse over each of the portraits for the details. I've also shown the average age for each field.

The results vary considerably. Athletes really are past it by the time they're into their mid-twenties. Architects, on the other hand, are still doing work into their late sixties that surpasses anything they've done in their younger years.

Perhaps most surprising is that physicists and mathematicians don't do their greatest work until they're well into their thirties, on average. Einstein's early papers might have shaken science to its foundation, but his General Theory of Relativity, surely the crowning accomplishment of physics to date, didn't come until later, when he was 36.

A word of caution. By plotting only the greatest achievements of all time, I've skewed the results in favour of youth. The greatest achievements are often revolutionary, and revolutionaries tend to be young. When it comes to the less radical work done by the rest of us, I suspect that we continue to surpass ourselves to a much greater age.

Even so, there are lessons to be learned from this chart. Perhaps it's time for me to let go of my dream of scoring the winning goal at the World Cup final, and concentrate instead on writing my seminal work of literature.

Comments

Cody ⋅ 7 December 2014

Music is insultingly misrepresented here, as it only includes pop musicians. And even those pop musicians are only from a very small period of history. "27" is in no way an accurate depiction of the prime age of a musical artist. Beethoven? Bach? Berlioz? Tchaikovsky? Stravinsky? Holst? All of these world-famous composers and many more did their greatest works well past the age of "27." Please try to be more artistic when you're talking about artists.

Mark Jeffery ⋅ 20 December 2014

Yes, you're right, Cody, I've only considered pop musicians here. Partly, that's because classical composers tended to do great work over much longer periods of their lives, while the apogee of a pop musician's career is easier to identify. Partly, it's because to be a musician today is to be a pop musician, and I wanted to make this presentation as relevant as possible to people today. It's interesting that there's such a distinction between how music was created in the past and how it's created today.

Danny H. ⋅ 4 February 2015

Very cool work. I agree with your music selection. Impossible to display all types of music and illustrate a good apogee at the same time. Might be interesting to see a chart with U.S. Presidents.

nolotrippen ⋅ 5 October 2015

What Cody said.

Blank ⋅ 18 February 2016

Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle did not even make the philosophy list?

Mark Jeffery ⋅ 18 February 2016

I agree that Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle are candidates for any list of great philosophers. They're omitted here not because I don't think they did great work, but because it's very difficult to identify at what age they did their greatest work.

Images

Wikipedia – images from articles on each of the 100 achievers

Text

A text summary of this presentation is shown below for easy reference

Athletics

Average age at time of greatest achievement 24

Nadia Comăneci  1961 –

Seven Perfect 10s  1976   age 15

Gertrude Ederle  1905 – 2003

Swims The English Channel In Record Time  1926   age 21

Mark Spitz  1950 –

Seven Gold Medals  1972   age 22

Bob Beamon  1946 –

World-Record-Shattering Long Jump  1968   age 22

Jesse Owens  1913 – 1980

Four World Records In 70 Minutes   1935   age 22

Roger Bannister  1929 –

Four-Minute Mile  1954   age 25

Wilt Chamberlain  1936 – 1999

The 100-Point Game  1962   age 26

Joe DiMaggio  1914 – 1999

56-Game Hitting Streak  1941   age 27

Muhammad Ali  1942 –

Three Heavyweight Titles  1964 – 1978   age 29

Babe Ruth  1895 – 1948

60 Home Runs In a Season  1927   age 32

Music

Average age at time of greatest achievement 27

Elvis Presley  1935 – 1977

The Sun Sessions  1954   age 19

Brian Wilson  1942 –

Pet Sounds  1966   age 24

Bob Dylan  1941 –

Highway 61 Revisited  1965   age 24

Jimi Hendrix  1942 – 1970

Are You Experienced?  1967   age 25

Lou Reed  1942 – 2013

The Velvet Underground  1967   age 25

John Lennon  1940 – 1980

Seargent Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band  1967   age 27

Joe Strummer  1952 – 2002

London Calling  1980   age 28

Mick Jagger  1943 –

Exile on Main Street  1972   age 29

Marvin Gaye  1939 – 1984

What's Going On  1971   age 32

Miles Davis  1926 – 1992

Kind of Blue  1959   age 33

Mathematics

Average age at time of greatest achievement 33

Carl Friedrich Gauss  1777 – 1885

Disquisitiones Arithmeticae  1798   age 21

Kurt Gödel  1906 – 1978

Incompleteness Theorem  1931   age 25

Bernhard Riemann  1826 – 1866

Riemannian geometry  1853 – 1854   age 28

Georg Cantor  1845 – 1918

Set Theory  1874   age 29

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz  1646 – 1716

Calculus  1675   age 29

Fibonacci  1170 – 1250

Liber Abaci  1202   age 32

Grigori Perelman  1966 –

Poincaré conjecture  2002 – 2003   age 37

Thomas Hales  1958 –

Kepler conjecture  1998   age 40

Andrew Wiles  1953 –

Fermat's Last Theorem  1993 – 1995   age 41

Leonhard Euler  1707 – 1783

Euler's equations   1757   age 50

Physics

Average age at time of greatest achievement 36

Paul Dirac  1902 – 1984

Dirac equation  1928   age 26

Niels Bohr  1885 – 1962

Bohr model of the atom  1913   age 28

Richard Feynman  1918 – 1988

path integral formulation of quantum mechanics  1948   age 30

James Clerk Maxwell  1831 – 1879

Maxwell's equations  1861   age 30

Marie Curie  1867 – 1934

polonium and radium  1898   age 31

Albert Einstein  1879 – 1955

general theory of relativity  1915   age 36

Michael Faraday  1791 – 1867

electromagnetic induction  1831   age 40

Isaac Newton  1642 – 1727

Principia Mathematica  1687   age 45

Ernest Rutherford  1871 – 1937

discovery of the proton  1917   age 46

Galileo Galilei  1564 – 1642

moons of Jupiter  1610   age 46

Exploration

Average age at time of greatest achievement 36

Marco Polo  1254 – 1324

China  1274   age 20

Vasco de Gama  1469 – 1524

India  1498   age 29

Walter Raleigh  1552 – 1618

Virginia  1584   age 32

Leif Eriksson  970 – 1020

Labrador  1002   age 32

Roald Amundsen  1872 – 1928

South Pole  1911   age 39

Francis Drake  1540 – 1596

around the world  1577 – 1580   age 39

James Cook  1728 – 1779

New Zealand  1769   age 41

Christopher Columbus  1451 – 1506

Bahamas  1492   age 41

David Livingstone  1813 – 1873

Victoria Falls  1855   age 42

John Cabot  1450 – 1499

Newfoundland  1497   age 47

Innovation

Average age at time of greatest achievement 37

Guglielmo Marconi  1874 – 1937

radio  1894 – 1896   age 21

Eli Whitney  1765 – 1825

cotton gin  1793   age 28

Alexander Graham Bell  1847 – 1922

telephone  1876   age 29

Charles Algernon Parsons  1854 – 1931

steam turbine  1884   age 30

Louis Daguerre  1797 – 1851

photography  1837   age 40

Fritz Haber  1868 – 1934

ammonia synthesis for fertilizers  1909   age 41

Louis Pasteur  1822 – 1895

pasteurization  1863   age 41

James Watt  1736 – 1819

steam engine  1781   age 45

Alexander Fleming  1881 – 1955

penicillin  1928   age 47

Edward Jenner  1749 – 1823

smallpox vaccine  1798   age 49

Philosophy

Average age at time of greatest achievement 44

David Hume  1711 – 1776

A Treatise of Human Nature  1739   age 28

Gottlob Frege  1848 – 1925

modern quantificational logic  1879   age 31

John Stuart Mill  1806 – 1873

System of Logic  1843   age 37

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel  1770 – 1831

Phenomenology of Spirit  1807   age 37

René Descartes  1596 – 1650

Discourse on the Method  1637   age 41

Baruch Spinoza  1632 – 1677

Ethics  1677   age 45

Thomas Aquinas  1225 – 1274

Summa Theologica  1265 – 1274   age 45

Ludwig Wittgenstein  1889 – 1951

Philosophical Investigations  1946   age 57

Immanuel Kant  1724 – 1804

Critique of Pure Reason  1781   age 57

John Locke  1632 – 1704

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding  1690   age 58

Literature

Average age at time of greatest achievement 45

Franz Kafka  1883 – 1924

The Trial  1914   age 31

William Faulkner  1897 – 1962

The Sound and the Fury  1929   age 32

William Shakespeare  1564 – 1616

Hamlet  1600   age 36

James Joyce  1882 – 1941

Ulysses  1922   age 40

Anton Chekhov  1860 – 1904

The Cherry Orchard  1904   age 44

Marcel Proust  1871 – 1922

In Search of Lost Time  1909 – 1922   age 45

Samuel Beckett  1906 – 1989

Waiting for Godot  1953   age 47

Vladimir Nabokov  1899 – 1977

Lolita  1955   age 56

Gertrude Stein  1874 – 1946

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas  1933   age 59

John Milton  1608 – 1674

Paradise Lost  1667   age 59

Art

Average age at time of greatest achievement 49

van Gogh  1853 – 1890

Café Terrace at Night  1888   age 35

Michelangelo  1475 – 1564

Sistine Chapel  1510   age 35

Caravaggio  1571 – 1610

The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist  1608   age 37

Jackson Pollock  1912 – 1956

One: Number 31, 1950  1950   age 38

Leonardo da Vinci  1452 – 1519

Mona Lisa  1505   age 53

Picasso  1881 – 1973

Guernica  1937   age 56

Monet  1840 – 1926

Water-Lily Pond  1897   age 57

Velázquez  1599 – 1660

Las Meninas  1656   age 57

Rembrandt  1606 – 1669

Self-Portrait with Two Circles  1667   age 61

Cézanne  1839 – 1906

Mont Sainte-Victoire  1903   age 64

Architecture

Average age at time of greatest achievement 56

Le Corbusier  1887 – 1965

Villa Savoye  1928   age 41

Stephen Sauvestre  1847 – 1919

Eiffel Tower  1887 – 1889   age 41

William Van Alen  1883 – 1954

Chrysler Building  1929   age 46

Filippo Brunelleschi  1377 – 1446

Duomo  1418 – 1436   age 50

Antonio Gaudi  1852 – 1926

Sagrada Família  1883 – 1926   age 53

Jean Nouvel  1945 –

Guthrie Theater  2006   age 61

Henri Labrouste  1801 – 1875

Bibliotheque Nationale  1862 – 1868   age 64

George Bergstrom  1876 – 1955

Pentagon  1941   age 65

Louis Kahn  1901 – 1974

Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban  1962 – 1974   age 67

Frank Lloyd Wright  1867 – 1959

Falling Water  1935   age 68

Date

First published 30 June 2014

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