They were Twentysomethings with a lot of time on their hands and nothing better to do

Friday, June 3rd, 2022

An interesting pattern recurs across the careers of great scientists, Dwarkesh Patel notes, an annus mirabilis (miracle year) in which they make multiple, seemingly independent breakthroughs in the span of a single year or two:

Einstein had his annus mirabilis in 1905. While he was still a patent clerk, he wrote four papers that revolutionized our understanding of the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion, and special relativity.

Newton’s annus mirabilis came to him between 1665 and 1666, when Cambridge responded to the Bubonic plague by sending its students home to quarantine. During that time, Newton, aged 22, developed the theory of gravity along with the language of calculus required to express it.


Many other great scientists — Copernicus, Darwin, von Neumann, and Gauss — also seem to have had an annus mirabilis.

Miracle years happen outside of pure science too. In his memoir, Linus Torvalds talks about how he spent the summer before turning 21 reading an operating systems textbook cover to cover, how later that year he built a terminal emulation program just for fun, and how he spent all his time working on this program until pretty soon it morphed into a full operating system called Linux. That was his annus mirabilis.

Even writers have miracle years. Just recently, the popular fantasy author Brandon Sanderson announced that in the year or two since the pandemic began, he has secretly written five extra novels in addition to the ones his fans knew he was writing.

Perhaps, he suggests, there’s a brief window in a person’s life where he has the intelligence, curiosity, and freedom of youth but also the skills and knowledge of age:

These conditions only coincide at some point in a person’s twenties. It wouldn’t be surprising if the combination of fluid intelligence (which declines steeply after your 20s) and crystalized intelligence (which accumulates slowly up till your 50s and 60s) is highest during this time. Stephan and Levine (1993) find that most Nobel laureates do their prize winning work in their late 20s or early 30s.

During his miracle year, Einstein was a patent clerk, Newton was a college student dismissed for quarantine, and Darwin was a trust fund kid who had just finished a long voyage aboard the HMS Beagle and still didn’t know what to do with his life. They had no obligations to research some old professor’s hobby horse using his particular technique or paradigm.

Given how many of the great scientific discoveries have come about during miracle years, he argues, we should do everything we can to help smart Twentysomethings have an annus mirabilis:

We should free them from rote menial work, prevent them from being overexposed to the current paradigm, and give them the freedom to explore far-fetched ideas without arbitrary deadlines or time-draining obligations.

It’s depressing that I have just described the opposite of a modern PhD program.


  1. Pseudo-Chrysostom says:

    In other words, Patel bemoans the loss of an open aristocracy.

  2. Gavin Longmuir says:

    “We should free them from rote menial work …”

    Or should we encourage their creativity by making them do massive amounts on mind-numbing rote work, say like being a patent clerk?

    “give them the freedom to explore far-fetched ideas without arbitrary deadlines or time-draining obligations.”

    Like, say, imposing the isolation of arbitrary unnecessary prolonged Lock Downs? Maybe China is onto something in Shanghai!

  3. Adar says:

    Newton was given a sinecure from the government after his earliest research. Doesn’t seem to have done much in the years that followed.

    Einstein was quite active but not with a whole lot of more of discoveries to be made [you can reasonably ask what more can you expect from one man].

    Von Neumann continued to do much more research with advances throughout his whole life.

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