Reality shows now dominate much of our television schedules. They often double up as talent shows too, in which contestants warble and dance their way into a brief burst in the limelight. Youthful good looks usually trump intellect and experience in winning first prize.
So, it is intriguing to see a Chinese newspaper complain about ageism from the opposite end of the spectrum. There have been too many elderly winners of China’s National Supreme Scientific Award, according to Shi Ze at the South Weekend. Of the 14 winners announced since the establishment of the awards in 2000, nine have been more than 80 years-old and only one less than 70.
This year neurosurgery specialist Wang Zhongcheng (83) and chemist Xu Guangxian (88) both zimmered up to the stage for their tearful thank you speeches. And to collect pretty reasonable prize money too; both received Rmb500,000, with a further Rmb4.5 million earmarked for future research funding in their area of specialism.
But Shi says the Award was set up to promote scientific advance in China, so more attention should be given to encouraging younger scientists with more years ahead of them. At the moment, the Award is being bestowed more as a lifetime achievement prize.
He goes on to quote (unidentified) research that claims most scientific breakthroughs are achieved by people of younger age. In fact, most of the 14 award winners seem to have received plaudits for work completed at least 30 years earlier. Besides, says Shi, it is now rather unfair to ask an 80 year-old to “surge towards the commanding heights of science” with their new found financial resources.
Is the criticism valid? Anecdotal evidence points to Einstein publishing his Annus Mirabilis Papers (which transformed understanding of space, time and matter) at the age of 24. But Einstein was a pretty special case. And, in the same way that perseverance is required to achieve scientific breakthrough, the pursuit of learning is also supposed to be a life-long discipline. Hence the Chinese saying that a person can study until old age and still not finish.
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