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Some eponymies in science

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In history, it is rare that scientist achieve notoriety and fame during their lifetimes. If they nonetheless do, they get credit and lasting recognition by having a scientific discovery named after them.

However, there happen to be wrong naming attributions. Indeed, naming disputes are so common that there is even a rule of thumb called the Zeroth theorem, which states that eponymous discoveries are, more often than not, wrongly attributed. Appropriately enough, the theorem is also known as Stigler’s law of eponymy even though it was originally formulated by Robert Merton.

Below are few examples.

Antonio Meucci – who despite developing the first telephone spent his whole life in poverty (“if Meucci had been able to pay the $10 fee to maintain the caveat after 1874, no patent could have been issued to Bell”), while Alexander Graham Bell got all the glory.

Alan Turing – whose huge strides in the conception of the first generation of computers (his work for the Colossus computer, the world’s first programmable digital electronic computer) were destined to never to be fully attributed to him, due to his untimely death.

Nikola Tesla – who died almost totally penniless, while the ideas he had put forward for radio (he demonstrated a wireless communication – radio – in 1894) made Guglielmo Marconi (who received Nobel Prize in Physics for radio in 1909) a fortune.

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck – who correctly surmised that living things evolved, over sixty years before Charles Darwin publicized the fact, but was to die in ignominy with his ideas not appreciated (but tacitly considered by Darwin in his On Origin Of Species).

Geoffrey Dummer – whose musings on the development of the integrated circuit preceded those of Bob Noyce and Jack Kilby by almost a decade, but due to lack of vision by the British Government his plans were never to make it off the drawing board.

Joseph Swan – who despite having the technical expertise that allowed him to design the first workable electric light bulb, was no match for the commercial machinations of adversary Thomas Edison.

Johann Loschmidt – an Austrian scientist who calculated in 1865 the number of molecules in a mole but it was Italian chemist Amedeo Avogadro, whose name became associated with the number.

Albert Neisser – who discovered leprosy (officially known as Hansen’s disease, in honour of the Norwegian physician Gerhard Armauer Hansen, who discovered the bacterium responsible but did not manage to cultivate it, or show that it was truly linked to leprosy), and who obtained from Hansen a large set of samples from people with leprosy. Neisser succeeded in staining the bacterium and, in 1880, announced that he had discovered the cause of leprosy. Hansen wrote a lengthy article about his own research for a conference on leprosy, which credited him, not Niesser, for the discovery.

Robert Hooke – Who postulated, amongst other things, the true nature of planetary motion, only to witness his rival Isaac Newton take all the praise for it.

Sources: New Scientist, ECNmag

Written by Hayk

October 11, 2008 at 9:13 pm

The first PDA: case Apple Newton

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This story is about the precursor of modern PDAs.

The Newton project was not originally intended to produce a personal digital assistant (PDA). The PDA category did not exist for most of Newton’s genesis (however earlier devices like the Psion Organiser and Sharp Wizard had the functionality to be considered PDAs), and the “personal digital assistant” term itself was coined relatively late in the development cycle by Apple‘s then-CEO John Sculley on 7th January 1992, the driving force behind the project. Newton was intended to be a complete reinvention of personal computing.

To clarify, the official name of Apple’s product was the MessagePad; Newton was really the name of the operating system. But Newton captured the public’s imagination, so that’s what the device was popularly called.

One of the original motivating factors for the design was known as the “Architect Scenario”, in which Newton’s designers imagined a residential architect working quickly with a client to sketch and interactively modify a simple two-dimensional home plan.

The end result was a however what became a template for future PDAs. Its initial version rolled off with a variety of software to aid in personal data organization and management.

This included applications as Notes, Names, and Dates, as well as a variety of productivity tools such as a calculator (metric conversions, currency conversions), time-zone maps, and a handwriting recognition, which worked even with the display rotated.

In 1993 before its release, Apple launched a marketing campaign of Newton centered on its allegedly unprecedented handwriting recognition.

When it first appeared in shops, Newton however became a disappointment. It was big (not suitable for pocket), pricy (about $700 for the first model and as much as $1,000 for later), new (no market familiarity) and had software problems (notably, its handwriting recognition was fairly inaccurate and was skewered in the Doonesbury comic strips).

PDAs would remain a niche product until Palm, Inc.‘s (by ex-Apple employee Donna Dubinsky) Palm Pilot emerged shortly before the Newton was discontinued in 1998. The cheaper Palm Pilot was released in 1995 and became a runaway success. It was smaller, thinner and sold at lower cost. It had an excellent PC synchronization and more robust handwriting recognition (Graffiti) system—which had been available first as a software package for the Newton—managed to restore the viability of the PDA market after Newton’s commercial failure.

Written by Hayk

September 17, 2008 at 6:22 pm

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