Stephen Wolfram: Is It Too Late to Start Something New?
G.H. Hardy was one of the 20th century’s finest mathematical minds. Many remember him today for his book A Mathematician’s Apology, which novelist Graham Greene praised as “the best account of what it was like to be a creative artist.”
In it, Hardy writes:
“No mathematician should ever allow himself to forget that mathematics, more than any other art or science, is a young man’s game.”
An entire generation of mathematicians took Hardy’s word as law. Get in what you could when the going was good, they thought, because it was all over by age 30.
Stephen Wolfram — the computer scientist and mathematician behind Wolfram Alpha and Mathematica — recalls just how prevalent Hardy’s ideas were in his book Idea Makers (the book is a must-read, especially the essays on Feynman and Ramanujan):
“…by the 1970s [this belief] was taken as an established fact, extending to science as well as mathematics. Kids I knew would tell me I’d better get on with things, because it’d be all over by age 30.”
Now, there is undoubtedly some truth to this claim. The brain is not immune to decay. Aging, disease and all the suffering that goes with it — these are real, inevitable things.
But, as humans often do, it is easy to take a small truism and take it too far.
It’s Too Late
It is some sort of ritual in Chinese families to force your child to learn piano (maybe parents think, despite overwhelming statistical evidence, that piano lessons will turn their children into black-haired Beethovens). My case was no exception.
As teenagers do, I rebelled by asking stupid questions. “If piano is so good for me,” I protested to my parents, “why don’t you learn it too?”
“It is simple,” my father replied. “Your mother and I want to learn, but we are too old. We didn’t have the opportunities that you have. You are lucky.”
I am infinitely grateful to my parents for the opportunities they gave me. They came to America to give me a better life, and I would not be who I am today without their love, dedication, and sacrifice.
Still, I wonder. Is it really too late to start?
If a strange, oval-shaped orange fruit falls from the sky and hits an “old man” (he is forty) in the head, he has no trouble learning that it is called a kumquat. He also has no trouble remembering all the names and numbers and birthdays of his favorite football stars. Yet, when it comes to learning a language, he is “too old.”
Sure, adults are busy. And maybe it is too late at sixty or seventy to be Beethoven. But who cares if you’re not Beethoven. Not being the best should not stop you from making music.
And, like wine, good cheese or a hardbound copy of Seneca’s Letters, some things do get better with age.
For example, Wolfram claims that, in his fifties, his productivity has improved:
“My own feeling — as someone who’s getting older myself — is that at least up to my age [Wolfram was 56 when he wrote this], many aspects of scientific and technical productivity actually steadily increase. For a start, it really helps to know more — and certainly a lot of my best ideas have come from making connections between things I’ve learned decades apart. It also helps to have more experience and intuition about how things will work out. And if one has earlier successes, those can help provide the confidence to move forward more definitively, without second guessing.”
Aging is real. In “raw brainpower” (whatever that is) our brains will not perform at 80 as they did at 28. But what is lost from biological decay is, in part, made up for by all the connections in the mind — the wonderful fruits of experience.
“Of course, one must maintain the constitution to focus with enough intensity — and be able to concentrate for long enough — to think through complex things. I think in some ways I’ve gotten slower over the years, and in some ways faster. I’m slower because I know more about mistakes I make, and try to do things carefully enough to avoid them. But I’m faster because I know more and can shortcut many more things. Of course, for me in particular, it also helps that over the years I’ve built all sorts of automation that I’ve been able to make use of.”
And, Wolfram even argues that for big, paradigm-defining work, one needs the perspective that only comes with age.
“A quite different point is that while making specific contributions to an existing area (as Hardy did) is something that can potentially be done by the young, creating a whole new structure tends to require the broader knowledge and experience that comes with age.”
So, perhaps it is true that the young are better at some things (you don’t see many white-haired folk in the Olympics) but that doesn’t mean they are better at everything.
And, well, who cares if the young are better. As long as we humans are around, there will be an infinity of questions to ask and an infinity of problems to solve. Enough for all of us.
Why let the young ones have all the fun?