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The spirit of things - did they say this before? It doesn't matter / Amir Teicher

Why are scientific discoveries named after scientists, and does that mean they didn't actually discover them?

scientific idea. Illustration: shutterstock
scientific idea. Illustration: shutterstock

What do Newton's laws, Euclidean geometry, Parkinson's disease, Freudian thought and a sixty watt light bulb have in common? Actually, not much. But they all point to an interesting phenomenon: the scientific world is full of laws, theories, units of measure and phenomena named after scientists. Naming objects, phenomena and concepts after people, which is called "eponymy" in Lez, is not a self-evident phenomenon. In the world of art, for example, a parallel phenomenon is not common: the cubist style is not called "Picassoism"; And Corinthian columns do not preserve the name of any Methuselah of Corinth, an ancient and prolific statue. Whereas in science, the names of scientists from the past seem to be hiding in every corner, peeking out of every crack, sometimes to the point of absurdity (have you ever heard of "Jourdanian" matrices? These are matrices that can be Jordanized, i.e., brought to Jordan's form) . why?

The great sociologist of science Robert Merton once explained that the reason for this is related to the institutional and value structure of the scientific community itself. In order to promote scientific work, the world of science seeks to encourage those involved in it to discover originality, innovation, and intellectual and technological daring; But at the same time he also demands from them modesty regarding their personal place in front of knowledge itself. Knowledge, the ideal claims, does not belong to scientists but to the world itself, and therefore to society as a whole. The scientist is asked, before anything else, to pursue the truth, and only as a second priority to take care of his personal advancement.

But if this is the world of values ​​of the scientific community, Merton went on to explain, how will the community encourage the individual scientist to excel? How do you educate at the same time for modesty and achievement? If a scientist nevertheless succeeds in contributing to valuable innovations in their work, how can they be rewarded for it? Eponymy, Merton answered, is the answer: it serves as an alternative system of reward, in the form of reading memorial stones within science itself in the name of groundbreaking scientists. And it is important to emphasize: it is not the scientist himself who will decide to name the discovery after his name. Scientists who try to name discoveries or inventions after themselves, or their teachers, are almost always rejected by the scientific community. The whole community, in continuous half-hidden and half-open negotiations, will decide.

The statistician Stefan Stigler added his own law to this: "Stigler's law of eponymy". Stigler's law of eponymy states that "no scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer". To demonstrate the law, Stigler examined the origin of the bell distribution named after Gauss, the "Gaussian distribution". If it is named after Gauss, Stigler argued, then someone must have invented it before him. Indeed, Gauss himself (in 1809) cited Laplace, who presented and analyzed the same distribution already in 1774; And some modern researchers do refer to that distribution as the Gauss-Laplace distribution. But then, argued Stigler, then Leplace can't be the source either! Indeed, historical research suggests that the same distribution was already known to Abraham de Moivre, who presented it in a publication in 1773. Since no one calls the bell distribution the "de Moivre distribution", the search for the original discoverer can stop here. And why did the scientific community decide to give Gauss the honor? Gauss was simply a more talented mathematician; If the bell had to ring one name, it should be his own name.

And what about Stigler's law of eponymy? If Stigler drafted it, doesn't the law contradict itself? Oh, Stigler replied, no problem. Actually, Robert Merton already invented it before me.

More on the subject

Robert K. Merton, Priorities in Scientific Discoveries: A Chapter in the Sociology of Science, American Sociological Review, 22 (6), 635-659.

Stephen M. Stigler, Statistics on the Table, Ch. 14: Stigler's Law of Eponymy, Harvard University Press, 1999.

About the author

Amir Teicher is a historian interested in the way scientists think. He teaches math, statistics and karate, works at the Weizmann Institute, and together with his amazing wife, raises two wonderful children.

The article was published with the permission of Scientific American Israel

4 תגובות

  1. Precisely the fact that the first one does not receive the most rights, allows those who come after him to gain fame if they developed the idea much further. But on the other hand, it is sometimes annoying that people who have added almost nothing to the subject have won the most fame. For example, Yuval Neman was the first to determine the properties of the omega-minus particle and precisely others received the Nobel Prize for the discovery. A bit annoying.
    good evening
    Yehuda

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