“A Man of Science Past Sixty Does More Harm than Good” (Unless His Name is “Avery”)

(p. 421) . . . , in 1928, Fred Griffith in Britain published a striking and puzzling finding. Earlier Griffith had discovered that all known types of pneumococci could exist with or without capsules. Virulent pneumococci had capsules; pneumococci without capsules could be easily destroyed by the immune system. Now he found something much stranger. He killed virulent pneumococci, ones surrounded by capsules, and injected them into mice. Since the bacteria were dead, all the mice survived. He also injected living pneumococci that had no capsules, that were not virulent. Again the mice lived. Their immune systems devoured the unencapsulated pneumococci. But then he injected dead pneumococci surrounded by capsules and living pneumococci without capsules.
The mice died. Somehow the living pneumococci had acquired cap-(p. 422)sules. Somehow they had changed. And, when isolated from the mice, they continued to grow with the capsule–as if they had inherited it.
Griffith’s report seemed to make meaningless years of Avery’s work– and life. The immune system was based on specificity. Avery believed that the capsule was key to that specificity. But if the pneumococcus could change, that seemed to undermine everything Avery believed and thought he had proved. For months he dismissed Griffith’s work as unsound. But Avery’s despair seemed overwhelming. He left the laboratory for six months, suffering from Graves’ disease, a disease likely related to stress. By the time he returned, Michael Dawson, a junior colleague he had asked to check Griffith’s results, had confirmed them. Avery had to accept them.
His work now turned in a different direction. He had to understand how one kind of pneumococcus was transformed into another. He was now almost sixty years old. Thomas Huxley said, “A man of science past sixty does more harm than good.” But now, more than ever, Avery focused on his task.

Barry, John M. The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. Revised ed. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: italics in original.)

Success Came Late to Author of Wizard of Oz


Source of book image: online version of the WSJ review quoted and cited below.

I remember a conversation with the late labor economist Sherwin Rosen on the substantial decline in research productivity of economists as they age. My memory is that he said the decline usually wasn’t because of inability, but because, at some point, the older economists stop trying.
I think there’s some truth to that. The belief that it is too late to succeed, can lead people to stop trying, and thereby make the prediction self-fulfilling.
Fortunately, L. Frank Baum kept trying:

(p. A15) If L. Frank Baum had been listed on the stock exchange in 1900, his shares would have been trading near historic lows. The soon-to-be famous author of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” had at that point failed at a long series of energetic attempts to find a career. At 44, Baum had already been a chicken farmer, an actor, a seller of machinery lubricants, a purveyor of novelty goods and a newspaper publisher. All his life he’d written lively prose — plays, ads, columns — but most of it seemed to go nowhere.

Then, suddenly, it did. The story of a girl named Dorothy who with her little dog, Toto, travels to the wondrous land of Oz burst from Baum’s pencil, almost taking him by surprise. “The story really seemed to write itself,” he told his publisher. “Then, I couldn’t find any regular paper, so I took anything at all, including a bunch of old envelopes.” Turned into a proper book with defining illustrations by W.W. Denslow, the story most of us know as “The Wizard of Oz” was an immediate sensation in 1900. In a review, the New York Times commended it, saying that it was “ingeniously woven out of commonplace material.” Baum would produce 13 sequels, though none had quite the sparkle of the first.

For the full review, see:
JOHN STEELE GORDON. “Books; Inventing a New World; The men who engineered the astonishing emergence of the modern age.” Wall Street Journal (Sat., April 11, 2009): W8.

The book being reviewed, is:
Schwartz, Evan I. Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009.

Experiments Suggest We Can Live Longer

RhesusMonkeysLongevity2009_07_11.jpg“Rhesus monkeys, 27-year-old Canto, left, and Owen, 29, are among the oldest surviving subjects in a study of the links between diet and aging.” Source of photo and caption: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A3) A study published Wednesday found that rapamycin, a drug used in organ transplants, increased the life span of mice by 9% to 14%, the first definitive case in which a chemical has been shown to extend the life span of normal mammals.

Anti-aging researchers also expect a second study, to be released this week, will show that sharply cutting the calorie intake of monkeys extends their lives substantially. The experiment is said to be the first technique shown to retard aging in primates.
The prospect of a reliable human longevity pill is still distant. A commentary released with the rapamycin study strongly cautioned against taking the drug to prolong life because of potentially deadly side effects. Rapamycin suppresses the immune system and carries strong warnings about the resulting risk of infections and death.
But the mouse and monkey findings appear to mark the most substantial scientific progress yet in the search for ways to extend human life spans — once viewed as a fringe area of study.
“It’s time to break out of our denial about aging,” said Aubrey de Grey, a British gerontologist who has drawn controversy for his suggestions on how to forestall death. “Aging is, unequivocally, the major cause of death in the industrialized world and a perfectly legitimate target of medical intervention.”

For the full story, see:
KEITH J. WINSTEIN. “”Two Mammals’ Longevity Boosted; Transplant Drug Lengthens Lives of Mice, and Fewer Calories Benefit Monkeys.” The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., JULY 10, 2009): A3.


Source of graphic: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited above.

Experiments on Animal Genes Enthuses Longevity Researchers


“Charles Yogi, 89, a track & field athlete, is part of the Hawaii Lifespan Study.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ story quoted and cited below.

(p. A18) Based on animal experiments, gerontologists believe that one key to a healthy, longer lifespan may be found in a few master genes that affect cellular responses to famine, drought and other survival stresses. The more active these genes are, the longer an organism seems to survive — at least in the laboratory. Moreover, researchers are convinced that some genes may protect us against the risks of heart disease, diabetes, cancer and dementia.
. . .
Recent insights into the genetics of aging among simple organisms are stoking their enthusiasm. In January, for example, gerontologist Valter Longo at the University of Southern California reported that by altering two genes he made yeast that lived 10 times longer than normal. “We can really reprogram the lifespan of these organisms,” he said. In March, scientists at the University of Washington identified 15 genes regulating lifespan in yeast and worms that resemble genes found in humans. At least three companies are working independently on potential therapies based on the discovery that life span in mammals may be regulated partly by genetically controlled enzymes called sirtuins.

For the full story, see:
ROBERT LEE HOTZ. “Secrets of the ‘Wellderly’; Scientists Hope to Crack the Genetic Code of Those Who Live the Longest.” The Wall Street Journal (Fri., SEPTEMBER 19, 2008): A18.
(Note: ellipsis added.)

Age and Inventiveness

AgeProductivityGraph.gif Source of graph: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. B5) A particularly stark view of age-related constraints on researchers’ work comes from Benjamin Jones, an associate professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. He examined biographical data over the past century for more than 700 Nobel laureates and renowned inventors.

His conclusion: “Innovators are productive over a narrowing span of their life cycle.” In the early 20th century, he found, researchers at the times of their greatest contributions averaged slightly more than 36 years old. In recent decades, innovation before the age of 30 became increasing rare, with the peak age of contribution rising toward age 40. Meanwhile, the frequency of key contributions has consistently diminished by researchers in their early or mid-50s.
Occasionally, Mr. Jones says, booming new fields “permit easier access to the frontier, allowing people to make contributions at younger ages.” That could account for the relative youth of Internet innovators, such as Netscape Communications Corp. founder Marc Andreessen and Messrs. Page and Brin. But “when the revolution is over,” Mr. Jones finds, “ages rise.”
Unwilling to see researchers at peak productivity for only a small part of their careers, tech companies are fighting back in a variety of ways. At microchip maker Texas Instruments Inc., in Dallas, executives are pairing up recent college graduates and other fresh research hires with experienced mentors, called “craftsmen,” for intensive training and coaching.
This system means that new design engineers can become fully effective in three or four years, instead of five to seven, says Taylor Efland, chief technologist for TI’s analog chip business. Analog chips are used in power management, data conversion and amplification.
At Sun Microsystems Inc., teams of younger and older researchers are common. That can help everyone’s productivity, says Greg Papadopoulos, chief technology officer for the Santa Clara, Calif., computer maker. Younger team members provide energy and optimism; veterans provide a savvier sense of what problems to tackle.

For the full story, see:
GEORGE ANDERS. “THEORY & PRACTICE; Companies Try to Extend Researchers’ Productivity; Teams of Various Ages, Newer Hires Combat Short Spans of Inventing.” The Wall Street Journal (Mon., AUGUST 18, 2008): B5.

A large literature exists on the relationship between age and scientific productivity. I am particularly fond of the following examples:

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. “Age and the Acceptance of Cliometrics.” The Journal of Economic History 40, no. 4 (December 1980): 838-841.
Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. “An Economic Model of the Life-Cycle Research Productivity of Scientists.” Scientometrics 6, no. 3 (1984): 189-196.
Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. “The Life-Cycle Research Productivity of Mathematicians and Scientists.” The Journal of Gerontology 41, no. 4 (July 1986): 520-525.
Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. “An Optimal Control Model of the Life-Cycle Research Productivity of Scientists.” Scientometrics 11, nos. 3-4 (1987): 247-249.
Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. “The Polywater Episode and the Appraisal of Theories.” In A. Donovan, L. Laudan and R. Laudan, eds., Scrutinizing Science: Empirical Studies of Scientific Change. Dordrecht, Holland: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1988, 181-198.
Hull, David L., Peter D. Tessner and Arthur M. Diamond, Jr. “Planck’s Principle: Do Younger Scientists Accept New Scientific Ideas with Greater Alacrity than Older Scientists?” Science 202 (November 17, 1978): 717-723.

“Dream Big and Dare to Fail”

(p. 8A) ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) – Norman Vaughan, a dog handler and driver in Adm. Richard Byrd’s 1928 expedition to the South Pole, has died.
Vaughan died at Providence Alaska Medical Center just a few days after turning 100 years old.
He was well enough six days before his death to enjoy a birthday celebration at the hospital attended by more than 100 friends and hospital workers.
Vaughan’s motto was “Dream big and dare to fail.”

“Vaughan with Byrd at Pole.” Omaha World-Herald (Sunday, January 8, 2006): 8A.