Oleg Zabluda's blog
Thursday, December 01, 2016
Mathematicians who win [Fields Medal] publish far less in the years afterwards than similarly brilliant "contenders" — highly cited mathematicians who won other prestigious awards before the age of 40 (the cutoff for the Fields), but not the prize itself. The prize is awarded every four years to two, three, or four mathematicians.
Not only do they produce fewer papers, but the ones they do write are relatively less important. And winners take fewer mentees, as well.

The authors did find one surprising positive effect. Though they publish less, winners also take more risks in the future. They've already reached the pinnacle of their fields, so they feel free to pursue moonshots, new areas of mathematics that they think are fascinating or vital.

The risk is quite large. The winners know they're capable of doing extraordinary work in a particular area. Moving outside of it makes future results far less certain. Their particular gifts or talent might not translate well, and they're going to have to learn new skills and an entirely new body of research in the new area, which is all very time consuming.

The researchers term movement outside the core field, "cognitive mobility," and its increase explains about half of the drop off in productivity for medal winners.

The prize frees them up in an extremely significant way. In the years leading up to the medal year, the likelihood of a mathematician straying from their comfort zone is very rare, at just 5%. For prize-winners, the rate quintuples to 25%.

The overall drop off is unfortunate, and many of the medalists' experiments won't measure up to the efforts of lifelong specialists, according to the authors.


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