From an interview with Prof. Matthew Fisher, a permanent member of the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at UC Santa Barbara, regarding the difficulty of intuition when thinking about quantum mechanics:
...Fisher said he learned to think quantum mechanically by thinking mathematically first.
"One's intuition can with time transcend the mathematics. I would say that mathematics is to physics, what grammar and syntax are to poetry. You can't do the latter well unless you have a deep grasp of the former..."
So physics may not just be a game for the 20 and 30 somethings, like so many of the prized behaviors of society, such as athletics and TV script writing?
"Twenty is, I think, too young, for great physics," said Fisher. "At the other end, obviously, one eventually burns out. I do notice that the leaders in string theory are not only 30-year-olds, but also 40- and 50-year-olds. With the 50- and 60-year olds who were great successes earlier on, their success tends to generate distractions in the form of new duties. And physics, above all else, takes incredible focus."
Quoted on p.5 of The KITP News (August, 2006).
Or take theoretical physicist John Wheeler, who made key contributions to theoretical physics his entire life and worked on The Manhattan Project during World War II.from http://www.nextavenue.org/who-says-scientists-peak-age-50
In 1967, while in his mid-50s, he helped devise the ‘Wheeler-DeWitt equation,’ an important mathematical attempt to combine general relativity with quantum mechanics. In his 60s, Wheeler co-wrote one of the most influential textbooks on general relativity. In 1990, when Wheeler was in his late 70s, he developed the theory that information is a fundamental component of the universe (which he called “it from bit”).
Leonard Susskind, the theoretical physicist who came up with the concept of string theory, says the “standard wisdom” about age and scientists held true for theoretical physics for a long time...
But, Susskind adds, “Today it's very different. Here is a list of the people [over 50] who are dominating the idea landscape in my own field: Polchinski, Dimopoulos, Witten, Seiberg, Shenker, Strominger, Linde, Kallosh. There are younger people who are making important contributions, but so far not at the same level as these codgers.”
Susskind doesn’t think there is a single reason for this trend.
“What I can tell you for sure is that it has nothing to do with either funding or political influence,” he says. “I also don't think it has to do with the attraction of Wall Street or computer science. More likely, it is just the modern tendency toward longevity and good health into an older age.”
John Littlewood (1885-1977), the collaborator of Hardy and Ramanujan at Cambridge. "One of his most complicated pieces of work, 100 pages of hard analysis, which he dubbed “The Monster,” was completed when he was over seventy. His last paper that broke new ground appeared when he was 84." From http://www.robertnowlan.com/pdfs/Littlewood,%20John.pdf
"Working with Bruce Weinberg from Ohio State University in Columbus, Jones analysed 525 Nobel prizes awarded in physics, chemistry and medicine between 1900 and 2008... Comparing discoveries made before 1905 with after 1985, the average age at which physicists made their discoveries rose from 37 to 50... Jones and Weinberg suggest a shift from theoretical work, in which youngsters do better, towards experimental work, which requires experience and aggregation of knowledge, and therefore favours older scientists. They also suggest that as fields expand, it may take longer to accumulate the knowledge necessary to make a novel contribution." -- http://www.nature.com/news/2011/111107/full/news.2011.632.html