Dwarkesh Patel on The Mystery of the Miracle Year

An interesting pattern recurs across the careers of great scientists: an annus mirabilis (miracle year) in which they make multiple, seemingly independent breakthroughs in the span of a single year or two.


This is how the short, extremely readable essay begins, and the topic of the essay is not just observations about the remarkable number of scientists who have had these miracle years, but also ruminations about how we might get more people to have these years.

Newton, Darwin and Einstein are three people who Dwarkesh argues exemplify best the idea of a miracle year, and well, it is hard to argue against that list. But it’s not just this rather intimidating list – Copernicus, Von Neumann, Gauss, Linus Torvalds and Ken Thompson are also mentioned. (By the way, I’ve decided to not link to the Wikipedia pages in each case deliberately. Please do look up any name that you are unfamiliar with, because they’re all worth a Google search or two).

Dwarkesh argues, and to my mind fair convincingly, that the phenomenon isn’t just coincidence (read his post to understand why).

But that then raises two important questions: one, what were the causal factors that were common across all of these cases? Two, are these factors replicable – how do we increase the probability of many more folks having these miracle years?

As regards the first, Dwarkesh offers up two main hypotheses. The first:

In Kuhnian terms, you could say that the great scientists found a new paradigm and then spent a year gobbling up all of the important, low hanging discoveries before their competitors could catch up.


If the word “Kuhnian” is new to you, you’re in luck. Read this highlight, and then, if you can spare the time, the rest of the article. Also read the Wikipedia article, while you are at it. So ok, one idea is that these scientists were responsible for a paradigm shift, and as Dwarkesh says, they gobbled up all the important low-hanging fruit in these (apologies for the mixed up metaphor) unchartered territories.

A related hypothesis, and the two need not be mutually exclusive, is offered later on in the essay:

Perhaps there’s a brief window in a person’s life where he has the intelligence, curiosity, and freedom of youth but also the skills and knowledge of age. These conditions only coincide at some point in a person’s twenties. It wouldn’t be surprising if the combination of fluid intelligence (which declines steeply after your 20s) and crystalized intelligence (which accumulates slowly up till your 50s and 60s) is highest during this time.


Confused about fluid and crystalized intelligence? Read the Wikipedia article about it.

As always, read the rest of the essay, but I want to focus on the concluding paragraph of Dwarkesh’s essay:

Given how many of the great scientific discoveries have come about during miracle years, we should do everything we can to help smart Twentysomethings have an annus mirabilis. We should free them from rote menial work, prevent them from being overexposed to the current paradigm, and give them the freedom to explore far-fetched ideas without arbitrary deadlines or time-draining obligations.


I have chosen to not excerpt the very last sentence of the essay, in which he laments about how the excerpt above is the very opposite of a modern PhD program. Slight disagreement – I would say this is the very opposite of higher education in general – in particular, the “overexposed to the current paradigm” bit truly resonated with me.

Higher education is far too much about received wisdom and current orthodoxy, and I don’t think we do enough in terms of leaving opportunities for serendipitous conversations, chance encounters, heated debates and the freedom to explore potentially heretical ideas – no matter the field of study.

Sure classes are important, but there is so much more to education than memorizing definitions from a textbook. The cultivation practices currently in place aren’t going to generate too many annus mirablis’, more’s the pity.