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Simultaneity

This is the 300th regular post on this site. Time to talk about simultaneous scientific discovery, starring Edison, Newton, Darwin, and many many others.

Newton by Eduardo Paolozzi

Eduardo Paolozzi [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I have some things to say about simultaneity in the update post following this one. But, here, I want to contrast two competing theories of scientific discovery: the heroic theory of discovery and the multiple discovery hypothesis. To put it plainly, the former posits that discovery, invention, creation, and innovation are the product of individual heroes: the smartest, the best, the luckiest of us. The latter suggests instead that everything else – the circumstances and surroundings, the history and the inspiration, the supporters and the collaborators – is more central and important than the heroes.

The heroic theory is popular in Western culture. Look at how we deify “inventors” and “innovators!” But I have a suspicion that the latter more accurately represents reality. I’ve written before about scenius, and this idea follows the same line. On invention, Thomas Edison wrote the following:

I never had an idea in my life. My so-called inventions already existed in the environment – I took them out. I’ve created nothing. Nobody does. There’s no such thing as an idea being brain-born; everything comes from the outside.

In science, there are many examples of discoveries made by several people at the same time, working completely independently of each other. This supports the multiple discovery position: if several people can discover the same thing at about the same time, all of the contextual factors must have played a significant part in the discovery. It wasn’t a solitary genius, but the intellectual and cultural matrix out of which their thoughts were born.

Calculus, for example, was independently and more-or-less simultaneously invented by Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. (They argued about it after discovering the other’s work!) Charles Darwin, writing up his theory of natural selection, got a letter from Alfred Russel Wallace proposing the same idea. (They ended up collaborating rather than feuding, thus proving forever that biologists are more civil than mathematicians.)

It turns out that simultaneous discovery is more common than you’d think. To the list above, add pulmonary circulation, continental drift, sunspots, steam engines, platinum, oxygen, chloroform, the telegraph, the periodic table, the telephone (Elisha Gray and Alexander Bell even got their patents to the office on the same day!), HIV (both discoveries published in the same issue of Science under different names), helium, the lightbulb, radioactivity, polio vaccines…

The concept of simultaneous discovery was first presented by an American sociologist named Robert K. Merton. He has been quite influential in our understanding of science, actually. He was the one to coin the terms “unintended consequences,” “role model,” and “self-fulfilling prophecy.”

I wonder, however, if someone else thought of them at the same time.

Categories: Mathematics & statistics Plants & animals Sciences Technology

The Generalist

I live in Auckland, New Zealand, and am curious about most things.

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