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Posted on 25 May 2022 by Benjamin Skuse

Hallmarks of a Nobel Career

Do you have to be a little genius as a child, who understands Einstein’s Theory of Relativity or can you only develop into a brilliant researcher later on?
Photo/Credit: RichVintage/iStockphoto

Nobel Prize winning scientists are often regarded as lone geniuses, born with an insight into the inner workings of nature us mere mortals could never hope to achieve. The truth is far more interesting.

For years, those wanting to pry back the curtains to see if there are any innate differences between Nobel Prize winners and plain good researchers had to rely on the testimony of laureates themselves. Results provided little to go on. Nobel Laureates were highly intelligent, creative, independent and flexible thinkers, free from poverty or other crippling restraints and possessing an unceasing will to answer difficult problems. No real surprises there.

More recently, getting to the nub of what makes a Nobel Prize winner tick has become a more scientific endeavour. With unprecedented access to hundreds of millions of scientific publications and related digital content, researchers have been making the science of science research a little more insightful – busting myths about Nobel Laureates along the way.

Age Is but a Number

“A person who has not made his great contribution to science before the age of 30 will never do so,” is a quote attributed to Albert Einstein. Admittedly, the likes of Werner Heisenberg, Paul Dirac, Wolfgang Pauli and, famously, Einstein himself were in their twenties when they made their key breakthroughs that would go on to form the foundations of modern physics. When he was just 26 years old, Einstein’s annus mirabilis of 1905 produced four groundbreaking papers, including his work explaining the photoelectric effect, for which he was awarded the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics, and special relativity.

Group picture Solvay Conference 1927
Many geniuses in one place: Albert Einstein and other physicist, several further Nobel Laureates to be, discussed the new quantum theory at the Solvay Conference 1927

But the image of young, creative minds prying open a box that contains the secrets of the universe – and had remained stubbornly locked to their forebears – is no longer true, if it ever was. A 2011 study revealed that the mean age of Nobel Prize winning achievements since 1980 is 48 years old.

John Fenn is a prime example. In his 60s, Fenn intensively focused on developing a method of identifying biological molecules by spraying a sample using an electrical field so that charged droplets form. He was eventually awarded for the invention of electrospray ionisation mass spectrometry he made in 1988 with the 2002 Nobel Prize in Chemistry aged 85.

So, if you haven’t yet made your big break, there is still time! However, this comes with a caveat. In an analysis of more than 500 Physics, Chemistry and Physiology/Medicine Laureates, researchers at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Illinois, USA, found that the early years of study were pivotal. Future Laureates published twice as many articles as other early-career researchers during their first five years as working scientists.

Hot Streak(s) and Teamwork

A career trait often mistakenly linked to youth and cited as typical of a Nobel winner is the ‘hot streak’. It is true that hot streaks – phases of unusually high achievement, where scientists make key breakthroughs and publish a string of high-impact papers – are disproportionately likely to generate future Nobel-winning works. But a hot streak can happen at any stage of a career – from that initial spurt of work like Einstein to when you are approaching retirement like Fenn.

The key difference between Nobel-winning scientists and others, the Kellogg study found, was that Laureates are more likely to have more than one hot streak, and these hot streaks last, on average, one and a half years longer.

Another common belief is that Nobel Prize winners are lone geniuses. This is almost never true. For instance, Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne and Barry Barish were awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics “for decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves”. They represented a team of thousands who made the breakthrough possible, as Thorne acknowledged: “The prize rightfully belongs to the hundreds of LIGO scientists and engineers who built and perfected our complex gravitational-wave interferometers, and the hundreds of LIGO and Virgo scientists who found the gravitational-wave signals in LIGO’s noisy data and extracted the waves’ information”.

There are many other examples of Nobel Laureates working as part of vast international teams towards a common goal. And indeed, when you look at how science is increasingly conducted in larger teams, Nobel Laureates’ papers are produced by an even higher proportion of large teams.

However, when it comes to the papers the Laureates were awarded for, the picture changes. A 2015 study of winners of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine suggested future Laureates become focused on producing fewer, higher quality papers and are more likely to be a sole author. The Kellogg study came to a similar conclusion, revealing that prize-winning papers more often than not come from fewer than three authors, “with an intriguing tendency for Laureates to claim the first authorship in the prize-winning works”.

What does all this tell the young scientists who will soon – and at least again – gather in Lindau? Be productive in your early career and a build a strong network of collaborators. Be persistent, as you never know when you might go on a hot streak. When that time comes, recognise when you’ve hit a purple patch and roll with it for as long as possible. And finally, if you’ve come up with a world-shattering idea, there’s no harm in taking credit for it.

Benjamin Skuse

Benjamin Skuse is a professional freelance writer of all things science. In a previous life, he was an academic, earning a PhD in Applied Mathematics from the University of Edinburgh and MSc in Science Communication. Now based in the West Country, UK, he aims to craft understandable, absorbing and persuasive narratives for all audiences – no matter how complex the subject matter. His work has appeared in New Scientist, Sky & Telescope, BBC Sky at Night Magazine, Physics World and many more.