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The Fields medals will be awarded this week in Seoul. What does the future hold for the winners? According to Borjas and Doran, declining productivity caused by a surfeit of dilettantism. The data point to a decline in productivity. By itself this is uninteresting. Perhaps all those on the cusp of 40, see a decline in productivity. What Borjas and Doran rely on is a degree of randomness in who gets a medal. First, there is the variation in tastes of the selection committee (Harish Chandra, for example, was eliminated on the grounds that one Bourbaki camp follower sufficed). Second, the arbitrary age cutoff (the case of the late Oded Schramm is an example of this). Finally, what is the underlying population? Borjas and Doran argue that by using a collection of lesser prizes and honors one can accurately identify the subset of mathematicians who can be considered potential medalists. These are the many who are called, of which only a few will be chosen. The winners are compared to the remaining members of this group. Here is the conclusion (from the abstract):
We compare the productivity of Fields medalists (winners of the top mathematics prize) to that of similarly brilliant contenders. The two groups have similar publication rates until the award year, after which the winners’ productivity declines. The medalists begin to `play the field,’ studying unfamiliar topics at the expense of writing papers.
The prize, Borjas and Doran suggest, like added wealth, allows the winners to consumer more leisure in the sense of riskier projects. However, the behavior of the near winners is a puzzle. After 40, the greatest prize is beyond their grasp. One’s reputation has already been established. Why don’t they `play the field’ as well?