Stolen science: “but I thought of it first!”

by Max Vos

The claim to ideas is a broadly debated subject, and more so in the scientific community than you might expect. The debates over who has the rightful claim to an idea or a discovery is no new discussion, and has a lot to do with the concept of the idea’s creation itself. When you look at everything scientists have discovered and the global scientific understanding, can a scientist’s work really be considered a creation?

This becomes even more difficult if there’s a general consensus on a particularly convenient piece of science or mathematics. For example, calculus operates in such a way so as to describe the way things (universal processes, motion, etc.) change. If the way things change is a definite process, can anyone really be said to have discovered it?

Would that not be like discovering the Earth? If there is a universal truth that exists, can it really be attributed to just one individual’s intellect?

newton-leibniz2In the early 18th century, the German Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and the English Sir Isaac Newton (both pictured left, respectively) were debating who was the true inventor of calculus. The debate arose in the first place because Leibniz published the very first papers on calculus in 1684 and 1686, but in 1706 in Netwon’s Optiks, Newton appeared to claim that he had invented the process himself. This was an important debate – both of the mathematician/physicist’s countries wanted to stake a claim to the most important development in mathematics at the time. Newton had worked on drafts of calculus in 1665/6 and accused Leibniz of plagiarising these early drafts, though the matter was never settled. Nowadays the discovery is attributed to both of them.

_60251254_photo-51-print-qp867-a4The case of Rosalind Franklin and her discovery of DNA is also a highly controversial one: can the discovery truly be attributed to her? In 1952, Raymond Gosling, a scientist working under Franklin, captured “Photo 51” (pictured right). Franklin is reported as being difficult to work with and stubborn at times, causing friction between her and her colleagues. One of the colleagues (Maurice Wilkins) shared the image with other colleagues of hers, who later claimed ownership of the discovery of DNA. James Watson and Francis Crick were awarded with a Nobel Prize for the discovery of DNA, and neither Franklin nor Gosling were credited, though Wilkins was.

These cases are not alone.

In 1885, junior scientist Theobald Smith discovered the bacterium Salmonella cholera-suis, but the discovery was attributed to Daniel Elmer Salmon, whom Smith worked under the supervision of. (It should be pointed out that the discovery was actually incorrect however – Salmonella is caused by a virus, not a bacterium). Smith’s work also led to a vaccine for classical swine fever for which Salmon also took full credit.

Jacobus Henricus van ‘t Hoff was in fact the discoverer of a chemical equation relating the rate constant of a reaction varies with temperature and the reaction’s activation energy, and wrote about it in 1884. Five years later, Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish chemist, provided a physical explanation of the equation, and the equation was since named after him – the Arrhenius equation.

In many cases in science, history has revealed contributors to discoveries that were never famed at the moment of the discovery. To what extent must we go back and give credit where credit is due, and where is credit due? When you think about it, looking at science from a global perspective, no single individual can be said to be the creator of the profession. As a discipline it favours logic, so is it not the mere scientific process itself that discovers science, and the scientists are the agents?

The point being, it really only matters when you define what science is. Is science the creation of rules for the world we live in, or is it created by the world we live in? Is it something to be invented or is it lying around, waiting to be discovered?

This debate is more difficult because questions of copyright can easily cover things that are created entirely originally. It can cover things like Photo 51, and Optiks, as they have authors. It can cover ideas when the ideas come from a single place at a single time. It’s very difficult to cover the scientific process, and who should be called the author of a theory or law. Perhaps it’s easier to not give science an author at all, and merely acknowledge the “first come, first served” nature of those discoveries.

If you want to go back to Newton though, maybe science does want to be discovered, though unconventionally through the medium of falling apples.

Related articles:

Five scientific discoveries that got the wrong name

Ten famous intellectual property disputes

Image: www.codex99.com

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