Why No Scientific Discovery Is Named After Its Discoverer
"Why No Scientific Discovery Is Named After Its Discoverer." This headline cannot be right... After all, there are so many examples that prove it to be wrong!
What about the Arrhenius equation, which describes the temperature dependence of reaction rates, named after Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius? Or the Fibonacci numbers (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55...), named for the Italian mathematician Fibonacci? Or Dyson spheres, theoretical structures built around stars to harvest their energy, described in detail by American physicist Freeman Dyson?
Well, neither Arrhenius, Fibonacci, nor Dyson actually discovered those things. Arrhenius' equation was first proposed by the Dutch chemist J. H. van 't Hoff. The Fibonacci numbers were well-documented in Indian mathematics more than 1400 years before Fibonacci popularized them. And Freeman Dyson freely admits that he got the idea for "Dyson spheres" from British science fiction author Olaf Stapledon and merely it fleshed out and further popularized it.
These examples, and many dozens more, exemplify Stigler's law of eponymy, which holds that no scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer. And true to his own law, University of Chicago statistician Stephen Stigler credits his eponymous "discovery" to the eminent sociologist Robert K. Merton.
Stigler's law humorously demonstrates a few fundamental characteristics of scientific discovery. First off, new, world-changing ideas rarely come from a single source. Though historical accounts often tell of lone scientists boldly bucking the status quo through tireless research, as if without their efforts, humanity would never have stumbled upon their innovations, the reality is that new ideas are out there waiting to be discovered. Take Newton's first and second laws of mechanics*, for example, which were proposed and described independently by Galileo Galilei, Robert Hooke, and Christiaan Huygens.
Second, Stigler's law shows that scientific revolution is actually a plodding process. Radical change rarely arrives with a novel notion's earliest discovery. Usually, the person who popularizes ideas, who actually changes minds, is the one who receives credit. The Chandrasekhar limit is the maximum mass of a stable white dwarf star. It was first described by Wilhelm Anderson and E. C. Stoner in 1929 but was ignored by most astrophysicists because it required the existence of black holes, which was then a taboo idea. The brilliant, young Indian astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar changed minds a year later after he refined Stoner and Anderson's idea with new, convincing mathematics.
Third, Stigler's law shows that science is truly a collaborative field. Ideas aren't pulled magically out of a hat (or a brain), they are built up piece by piece, ideas complimenting ideas, until a grand discovery isn't surprising – it's obvious. Many, many people may be involved in a single discovery, but only one usually receives the bulk of the credit. Take Peter Higgs' boson, wrought into existence by hundreds at particle colliders around the world, and first theorized by physicists Robert Brout and François Englert.
Gaze up at the night sky in 42 years and you will see another wonderful example of Stigler's law: Halley's Comet (pictured top). British astronomer Edmond Halley's calculations apprised us of when we can expect the photogenic comet to buzz Earth roughly every 75 years, but countless humans described it over the centuries, starting as early as 240 BC.
*This section originally referred to Newton's laws of mechanics as Newton's laws of thermodynamics. It has been corrected.