Monday, May 15, 2017

Why we think creativity is limited to the young

Letter sent to the AARP Bulletin, May 16, 2017

John Goodenough's magnificent breakthrough in physics at age 94 certainly is evidence that "creativity stays sharp as we age"  (AARP Bulletin, May 2017).

Dean Simonton, in his book Genius, Creativity and Leadership, has suggested that the false belief that creativity is limited to the young is based on an "illusion of contrast": great ideas that come very early in a a career are sometimes so striking, so different, that they overshadow later discoveries. 

As AARP noted, Einstein's work on relativity, published when he was only 26, known as the "special theory" of relativity, is often mentioned as an example of the power of youth. But Einstein's general theory, published 11 years later, was considered to be a greater leap forward.  Hans Ohanian, in  Einstein's Mistakes,  quotes three Nobel Prize winners' comments on the general theory: Paul Dirac called it ".... probably the greatest scientific discovery ever made," Lev Landau said that the general theory "represents probably the most beautiful of all existing physical theories" and Max Born said it was "the greatest feat of human thinking about Nature."

As Simonton notes, "Because Einstein's 1905 contribution had changed the way scientists viewed the universe, his 1916 contribution may look less momentous."  Young people certainly do make outstanding contributions, but they continue to work and their later work may be even better than their early efforts.

Stephen Krashen
Professor Emeritus
University of Southern California

Ohanian, H.  2008. Einstein's Mistakes. W.W. Norton.
Simonton,  D. K. 1984. Genius, Creativity, and Leadership. Harvard University Press.

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