Failures – exposed, reflected, considered

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

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