Distrust Effect Names

From a recent New Scientist:

Pity poor Johann Loschmidt, an Austrian scientist who calculated in 1865 that the number of molecules in a mole of gas is 6 × 10^23. This figure will be familiar to anyone interested in chemistry as Avogadro’s number.

And yet the Italian chemist Amedeo Avogadro never calculated it. His name became attached to the number some years after Loschmidt’s death, when a few chemists campaigned to name it in Avogadro’s honour. The history of science is littered with such injustices over the credit taken for discoveries, so much so that historians of science have taken to categorising the slights.

The case of Loschmidt is a prime example of the zeroth theorem, which states that a discovery, rule or insight named after an individual often does not originate with that person. Others include the Dirac delta function, a mathematical trick used by engineer Oliver Heaviside 30 years before the English physicist Paul Dirac; the Lorentz gauge condition, an electromagnetic effect discovered by Ludvig Lorenz almost 40 years before Hendrik Lorentz published it in 1904; and Olber’s paradox, that the night sky is dark even though the endless succession of stars in an infinite universe should fill the entire sky. German astronomer Heinrich Olber discussed it in 1823, but it was well known to Johannes Kepler more than 200 years before.

Another class of injustice results from the Matthew effect, by which eminent scientists get more credit for discoveries than lesser-known ones. The name comes from a passage in the Bible from the gospel according to Matthew: "For unto every one that hath shall be given… but from him that hath not shall be taken away."

Consider, for instance, the career of Albert Schatz, who isolated the antibiotic streptomycin in 1943 only to see his supervisor Selman Waksman win a Nobel prize for the discovery in 1952. The effect may also have been at work when the British astronomer Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered pulsars as a postgraduate in the 1960s. It was her supervisor, Anthony Hewish, who received the controversial Nobel prize in 1974. Bell’s case might be more accurately attributed to the Matilda effect, however, which describes how the work of women in science is often neglected (named after 19th-century feminist Matilda Gage).

GD Star Rating
Tagged as:
Trackback URL:
  • Silas

    I agree the point of the N/S article, but some of the examples are questionable. Heaviside’s name already goes to the Heaviside function (aka unit step function), which he also used, and which is the anti-derivative of the Dirac Delta function. Giving his name to the unit step function has the added benefit of being mnemonic, as that function as a “heavy side” (ha, ha!). Should his name have gone to both?

    Also, the Olber paradox was, strictly speaking, “well-known” to anyone who postulated infinite stars and knew what the night sky looks like.

  • Alan Gunn

    I vaguely recall reading somewhere that Giffen didn’t come up with the notion of Giffen goods–supposedly it was Marshall, who credited Giffen for reasons that remain unclear. That aside, economics seems to have few principles named after people, which seems odd.

  • < ?xml version="1.0" standalone="yes"?>
    < !DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/REC-html40/loose.dtd">

    I mentioned Stigler’s Conjecture here before.

  • mobile

    Does this post have anything to do with today being international mole day?

  • To add to Silas’ observation, Loschmidt has actually his own constant named after him. As wikipedia correctly states, in Germany it’s as commonly used as Avogadro’s constant, so most chemists/physicists will know Loschmidt for his work.

    I fully agree about supervisors taking credit for their post-docs’ and ph.d. students’ work. But that, being a ph.d. student myself, is maybe my own perception bias.

  • Alan Gunn,

    Yes, it was Marshall in the 3rd edition of his Principles of Economics who first suggested the idea of the Giffen good, although apparently someone had proposed something like it as far back as the Napoleonic Wars. Marshall attributed it to Giffen, a well known statistician, but there is no evidence that Giffen himself ever proposed it. The original example involved bread. In the most textbooks the Irish potato is suggested as the classic example supposedly provided by Giffen, but he never suggested it, nor did Marshall. A rather large literature since has shown that Irish potatoes could not have been Giffen goods, and that there is little evidence that British bread in the late 19th century was either. It would appear that Paul Samuelson is the source of the erroneous linking of Giffen with Irish potatoes in the 1964 edition of then totally dominant principles textbook. A careful reading of what Samuelson actually wrote there suggests that he probably thought up the (erroneous) possible example of Irish potatoes himself, and then described it as an example of the “curiousum” first suggest by “Sir Francis Giffen” (actual first name, Robert), leading many to assume the link, now in most textbooks, with as near as I can tell, a majority of economists believing that Giffen suggested Irish potatoes as an example of “his” good. A very recent study suggests that rice in some provinces of China might be an actual, real example of a Giffen good.

    TGGP’s link to Wikipedia contains even more egregious examples and is yet another
    example of the sometimes unreliability of Wikipedia. So, only ignorami refer to “Marshall’s supply and demand framework.” In English it was previously developed by Fleeming Jenkins, and it was foreshadowed by the large “proto-neoclassical” school in Germany, with the first to present a figure with S and D curves in a space with price on the vertical axis and quantity on the horizontal axis being Johannes Rau in 1838. Marshall apparently knew this earlier German literature (as did Jenkins), but did not specifically cite it or Jenkins. Cournot was slightly ahead of Rau, but famously reversed the axes, putting price on the horizontal axis, which corresponds better with how the whole thing is presented today.

    The German proto-neoclassical school contained large numbers of people before Gossens who knew about marginal utility, with the idea appearing even earlier in the Salamanca School.

  • Oh yes, Walras followed Cournot in putting his axes for supply and demand with price on the horizontal and quantity on the vertical. Marshall favored the other way because of his emphasis on the market for bread (which he thought might be a Giffen good), given its importance in so many peoples’ diets and budgets still in the 1890s in Britain, and he saw the market being driven by exogenous quantity shocks due to annual fluctuations in weather.

  • I thought only Rothbardian Smith-haters talked about the Salamanca school. With Barkley’s note, I might have to reduce my subjective probability of them being full of it.

  • TGGP,

    I have not read that particular work of Rothbard. In the linked article I saw no discussion of the Salamanca School. Many have noted their role as early premonitors of the idea of marginal utility, although one can argue that they lacked a fully developed view of economics.

    Regarding Smith, so frequently cited as the founder of modern economics, there is very little in his works that is completely original with him. In many ways, he was one of those excellent synthesizers of previously existing views, a good writer who put it all together in a convincing package. Thus, he is remembered more for the eloquence and pungency of some of his passages, even as we have largely forgotten those with similar views or arguments who preceded him.

  • Rothbard discusses the Salamanca school here. The same site has some other articles on the school, like Jesus Huerta de Soto’s biography of Juan de Mariana. Part of the reason for this emphasis may be Rothbard’s courting of “natural law” Catholic paleoconservatives after he left the New Left.