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Seven over 70

To complement our list of young innovators, here are several who have been at it for decades.
August 19, 2014

Innovation isn’t a chauvinist when choosing her servants: older people are as capable of new thinking as the young. Below, in order of age, are seven innovators over the age of 70.

Dr. John Goodenough’s inventions led to the creation of the lithium-ion battery.

1. Alan Kay, who is 74, is one of the fathers of personal computing: at Xerox PARC, during the 1970s, he was part of the team that developed the networked stations that inspired the first Apple computers. Those workstations were programmed in SmallTalk, a language designed by Kay, which introduced the term “object-oriented computing.” Today he is the president of the Viewpoints Research Institute.

2. Ada Yonath, 75, won the 2009 Nobel Prize in chemistry and is to the study of the ribosome what Rosalind Franklin was to DNA. The ribosome is responsible for protein synthesis, but its workings were not understood until recently. Yonath thought that x-ray crystallography could reveal the ribosome’s atomic structure, but preparing ribosomal crystals and interpreting the results was thought by many to be impossible. She devised a new technique called cryo bio-crystallography and in 1980 created what the Nobel committee called “the first useful crystals” of the ribosome, which led to the publication of the two-part structure of the ribosome in 2000. Today, Yonath is director of the Weizmann Institute’s Center for Biomolecular Structure and Assembly.

3. At 78, Laurence Young directs bioastronautics in the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology. In his long career, he has worked on many problems in spaceflight, including flight systems, but his special emphasis has been on the human factors: eye motion, balance, and manual control. He served as an alternate payload specialist for Spacelab on the space shuttle Columbia’s October 1993 mission. Today, he is working on safer helmets and wants to build an artificial-gravity machine on the International Space Station.

4. The economist Robert Solow, 90, is the creator of the Solow exogenous growth model, currently the dominant theory of macroeconomic growth. Although the mathematics are obscure, capturing shifts in capital, population, and other things, its most important implication is that long-term growth is driven by technological progress. Solow’s insight was recognized by the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1987. A professor emeritus at MIT, where he has taught since 1949, he still publishes. Recently, he has been wrestling with Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. (Solow thinks Piketty’s analysis of inequality is mostly accurate but his remedies are “hopeless.”)

5. Carl Djerassi, 90, contributed to the invention of Norethisterone, the first highly active progestin, a synthetic steroid used in oral contraceptives. Commercialized in the 1960s, the Pill transformed human reproduction and, by making contraception simple and a woman’s choice, changed the status of women in societies where it was easily obtained. A professor emeritus at Stanford, since 1989 he has been publishing what he calls “science-in-fiction” (novels where scientists are the protagonists). For the last few years, he has also been writing “science-in-theater,” dramas that “smuggle” his interests into literature.

6. Now 92, John Goodenough created the cathodes used by rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, but he has other reasons for fame as a mechanical engineer: at Lincoln Labs in the 1950s, he was instrumental in the development of random access memory, and he discovered a number of fundamental rules in magnetism. On retiring from the University of Oxford, he did not retire from innovation: he became a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, where he continues to publish research. In 2012, he identified “a ceramic anode material for a solid oxide fuel cell operating on natural gas.”

7. Charles Townes, who invented the laser and shared a 1964 Nobel Prize for his work in quantum electronics, has announced that at the age of 99 it’s time to wind down his office at UC Berkeley’s physics department. But he insists he will continue to make daily visits to the university’s Space Sciences Laboratory.

Finally, a bonus innovator whom age cannot weary: I interviewed Gene Wolfe for our Twelve Tomorrows science fiction supplement the day after his 83rd birthday. In November, he published a new novel, The Land Across, and was working on another. It will be his 31st.

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