Three stages of scientific discovery

There are three stages of scientific discovery: first, people deny it is true, then they deny it is important. Finally, they credit the wrong person” – Billy Bryson.

This quote is often credited to Alexander von Humboldt as well. That is an irony to the quote itself. If that were accurate, then we have an example right in the quote’s attribution it originally intended to call out.

Anyways. The quote is abundantly clear on the sad truth behind the crediting the discoveries and inventions are concerned. Although somewhat exaggerated, It seems broadly accurate, especially with the innovations that came out of India. Be it number system, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, Food, Yoga, Meditation and even board games, all went through the three stages quoted above. Some of these are presently struggling at the third stage – even after taking great pain of producing the burden of proof.

Stage 1 is being called a conspiracy theorist for having made any claim on the original discovery. I have written about it in a post named Conspiracy Theories, Russell’s teapot, and Breast Tax. Stage 2 is calling the discovery snake oil or placebo. I have briefly touched upon it in my post-Ayurveda, Clinical Trials & Capitalism. Let us talk about stage 3 – the wrong attribution.

There is a formal name for this third stage, it is called Stigler’s law of eponymy. It says that no scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer. Although it sounds like a gross exaggeration, you will be surprised to know how many scientific discoveries are wrongly credited to the scientist who discovered it at a later point in time or did not discover it at all. I am picking only Indian ones for now.

One example was Jagadish Chandra Bose, who was not credited for Radio wave communication instead of awarded it to an Italian Marconi. Among many others, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (1910-1995) on his contribution of Black holes! Get this:

At the age of just 20, on his journey to Cambridge, he came with the idea that is now called the Chandrasekhar limit: the concept that above a certain mass, electron degeneracy pressure in the core of a white dwarf star is not enough to counterbalance the gravitational self-attraction of the star. Above the Chandrasekhar limit, stars explode or collapse into a neutron star or black hole.

But when Chandrasekhar presented his findings at the Royal Astronomical Society in London in 1935, he was publicly ridiculed by Sir Arthur Eddington, a world-renowned physicist who had until then acted as a mentor to him. The clash was between an internationally famous physicist and a young Indian student in a hostile environment. It set acceptance of Chandrasekhar’s idea, and by consequence, his career, back by years, and ultimately led Chandrasekhar to leave Cambridge in the hope of finding a better welcome elsewhere. In 1972, the first black hole was discovered, and Chandrasekhar’s theory was finally proven correct.

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (1910-1995)

[Two Paragraphs and the image from the oxford-royale article Scientists Who Didn’t Get the Credit They Deserved ]

Traditionally, the Indian formal education system and mainstream media are designed to make us feel an inferior culture and did not contribute anything to the scientific world. Also, apparently, we have the west to thank for anything we have, which they brought to India on their civilization mission. Any attempt to dispute to this will face immediate and overwhelming ridicule in academic circles. This is how I grew up listening to how big losers we are with no hopes.

Things have changed, and truth had to come out eventually anyway. Now, get this, wikipedia a dedicated page for an extensive list of discoveries and inventions which finally attributed to Indians, after awarding it to a bunch of merchants, travelers and colonizers for centuries.

To be continued…