Discovering, and staying, discovered

Another interesting article in NYT, about the redundant nature of science, Pity the Scientist Who Discovers the Discovered. The article describes how so much of science consists of discovering what’s already been discovered by someone before–and highlights two challenges in the innovation process: distinguishing new from old and making a difference.

The discovery that your discovery has already been discovered is surprisingly common, said Stephen Stigler, a statistician at the University of Chicago who has written about the phenomenon. Not only does it occur in every scientific field, he said, the “very fact of multiple discoveries has been discovered many times.”

One of the more powerful examples, of course, is penicillin (An Unfortunate Notion), which was discovered, in various ways, long before Fleming. And, of course, the ultimate disdain in academia is calling someone’s work “old wine in new bottles,” which presumes your generation was the original winemaker.

Even Einstein’s work combined current understandings of what were existing but previously unconnected ideas and phenomena, building on the ideas of Boltzmann, Hertz, Poincare, Mach, Planck, and others. Such old wine is not so muc relabeled as remixed, combining in a way that enabled Einstein to take what was best and leave behind the vestiges of older scientific practices. Those closest to Einstein’s discovery, the very individuals whose work Einstein recombined, Mach, Max Planck, Lorentz, Poincare, themselves never wholly embraced his work. Max Planck referred to Einstein’s theories as merely a generalization of Lorentz’ work.

All work is derivative, but also breaks new ground. The first challenge is to know the difference. As Einstein once said of Mach, whose work he admitted to closely building on, “It is not improbable that Mach would have discovered the theory of relativity, if, at the time when his mind was still young and susceptible, the problem of constancy of the speed of light had been discussed among physicists.”

The second challenge is getting anyone, and then everyone, to know the difference:

Larry Shepp, a famous mathematician at Rutgers University…when told that a piece of work he thought was his discovery actually duplicated another mathematician’s breakthrough, replied: “Yes, but when I discovered it, it stayed discovered.”