In 1946, a 23-year-old Army veteran named John Goodenough headed to the University of Chicago with a dream of studying physics. When he arrived, a professor warned him that he was already too old to succeed in the field.
Recently, Dr. Goodenough recounted that story for me and then laughed uproariously. He ignored the professor’s advice and today, at 94, has just set the tech industry abuzz with his blazing creativity. He and his team at the University of Texas at Austin filed a patent application on a new kind of battery that, if it works as promised, would be so cheap, lightweight and safe that it would revolutionize electric cars and kill off petroleum-fueled vehicles. His announcement has caused a stir, in part, because Dr. Goodenough has done it before. In 1980, at age 57, he coinvented the lithium-ion battery that shrank power into a tiny package.
We tend to assume that creativity wanes with age. But Dr. Goodenough’s story suggests that some people actually become more creative as they grow older. Unfortunately, those late-blooming geniuses have to contend with powerful biases against them.
On the contrary, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that late blooming is no anomaly. A 2016 Information Technology and Innovation Foundation study found that inventors peak in their late 40s and tend to be highly productive in the last half of their careers. Similarly, professors at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Hitotsubashi University in Japan, who studied data about patent holders, found that, in the United States, the average inventor sends in his or her application to the patent office at age 47, and that the highest-value patents often come from the oldest inventors — those over the age of 55.
Years ago, he decided to create a solid battery that would be safer. Of course, in a perfect world, the “solid-state” battery would also be low-cost and lightweight. Then, two years ago, he discovered the work of Maria Helena Braga, a Portuguese physicist who, with the help of a colleague, had created a kind of glass that can replace liquid electrolytes inside batteries.
Dr. Goodenough persuaded Dr. Braga to move to Austin and join his lab. “We did some experiments to make sure the glass was dry. Then we were off to the races,” he said.
Some of his colleagues were dubious that he could pull it off. But Dr. Goodenough was not dissuaded. “I’m old enough to know you can’t close your mind to new ideas. You have to test out every possibility if you want something new.”
When I asked him about his late-life success, he said: “Some of us are turtles; we crawl and struggle along, and we haven’t maybe figured it out by the time we’re 30. But the turtles have to keep on walking.” This crawl through life can be advantageous, he pointed out, particularly if you meander around through different fields, picking up clues as you go along. Dr. Goodenough started in physics and hopped sideways into chemistry and materials science, while also keeping his eye on the social and political trends that could drive a green economy. “You have to draw on a fair amount of experience in order to be able to put ideas together,” he said.
He also credits his faith for keeping him focused on his mission to defeat pollution and ditch petroleum. On the wall of his lab, a tapestry of the Last Supper depicts the apostles in fervent conversation, like scientists at a conference arguing over a controversial theory. The tapestry reminds him of the divine power that fuels his mind. “I’m grateful for the doors that have been opened to me in different periods of my life,” he said. He believes the glass battery was just another example of the happy accidents that have come his way: “At just the right moment, when I was looking for something, it walked in the door.”
Last but not least, he credited old age with bringing him a new kind of intellectual freedom. At 94, he said, “You no longer worry about keeping your job.”