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To Be a Genius, Think Like a 94-Year-Old


To Be a Genius, Think Like a 94-Year-Old

In such a climate, it’s easy for us middle-aged folk to believe that the great imaginative leaps are behind us, and that innovation belongs to the kids.

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.

John P. Walsh, one of the professors, joked that the Patent Office should give a “senior discount” because “there’s clear evidence that people with seniority are making important contributions to invention.”

A study of Nobel physics laureates found that, since the 1980s, they have made their discoveries, on average, at age 50. The study also found that the peak of creativity for Nobel winners is getting higher every year. For many years, oddsmakers have predicted that Dr. Goodenough would win the Nobel Prize, but so far the call from Stockholm has not come. You might call him the Susan Lucci of chemistry. If he finally does prevail, he could be the oldest person ever to receive the Nobel, and a harbinger.

The more I talked to Dr. Goodenough, the more I wondered if his brilliance was directly tied to his age. After all, he has been thinking about energy problems longer than just about anyone else on the planet.

He grew up in the early days of the petroleum age, in a Connecticut farmhouse with a kerosene stove and an icebox for food. As a kid he rode in some of the early cars pioneered by Henry Ford. “The first car the family owned was a Model A,” he told me, with running boards and a lead-acid battery.

In the 1970s, the energy crisis inspired him to imagine how one could store power in tiny packages. Today, we’re still using his lithium-ion technology in our laptops, phones and electric cars. But Dr. Goodenough has long been bothered by the shortcomings of his brainchild, and driven by the need to do better. “One of the things that’s important in the society is to wean ourselves from our dependence on fossil fuels, and if we could make an electric car that would be as convenient and as cheap as an internal-combustion engine, we’d get CO 2 emissions off the road,” he said.

He believes the lithium-ion battery is too liable to explode, too expensive and too weak to bring us into that future.