Science Ahead of Its Time?

Thony C has a post about the Great Man theory of science spinning off some thoughts about Darwin by ex-ScienceBlogs silverback John Wilkins. As Thony writes:

Now you may ask why I as a historian of Renaissance mathematics should comment on a blog post about a 19th century work of biology and its author? The answer is quite simple; everything that John says about Darwin and his book can and should be applied to Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Newton and a host of other scientist from the early modern period and their works.

Nothing that any of these scholars did or wrote existed in a vacuum and all of their achievements would have taken place roughly within the same period of time if they had never lived.

This is a variant of the “steam engine time” idea, that new ideas and technology don’t really take off until the time is right for them. And it’s certainly true that examples abound of nearly simultaneous invention of the same branches of science by two different people– Newton and Leibniz, Darwin and Wallace, etc.

Of course, this does not beg but rather demands the question: are there any examples of truly revolutionary ideas in science? That is, are there scientific theories that jump well ahead of what was “in the air” at the time of their creation, in such a way that they would not have been discovered for decades more if their discoverer had died young in a tragic zeppelin accident?

My limited knowledge of the history of science doesn’t turn up much. Most of the great discoveries of physics were made in a context where dozens of people were working on the same problems, and sooner or later one of them would’ve come up with the right answer. The only thing that might fit the bill is General Relativity. Special Relativity was in the air– it’s called the “Lorentz-FitzGerald transformation” for a reason– but the notion of explaining gravity via curved space-time is rather different, and doesn’t seem to have the same amount of background support. I can imagine that people would’ve fumbled their way into believing what we now call Special Relativity not too long after 1905 (after all, most of what Einstein did was to make a convincing argument for the validity of mathematical ideas other people had come up with), but not gotten General Relativity for quite a while longer. But then again, the thing that really sold Relativity to the scientific community was the bending of light (as measured by the Eddington eclipse expedition), which is more a General than Special prediction.

So I don’t know. I have readers who are better versed in the history of science than I am, though, so maybe one of you will have something to offer. Are there any examples of scientific ideas that were genuinely far ahead of anything the originator’s contemporaries would’ve come up with?

20 thoughts on “Science Ahead of Its Time?

  1. The theory of continental drift probably meets your criteria. It was first proposed ca. 1915 by somebody who thought that the good fit between the coastlines of Brazil and western Africa wasn’t a coincidence. However, the notion did not catch on until the paradigm of plate tectonics was developed several decades later. Continental drift is a natural consequence of plate tectonics, but it’s hard to come up with another plausible mechanism.

    Another candidate, this one in mathematics, would be the Haar wavelet. Haar published the paper which describes his eponymous wavelet basis (and which I have read) in 1910, about 70 years before anybody knew what a wavelet was. Once the concept of wavelets had been invented, somebody recalled Haar’s paper and realized that Haar had described a wavelet basis.

  2. I’ve heard people refer to Gauss as the inventor of the Fast Fourier transform. Not bad – more than 100 years ahead of his time.

    Stephen Wiesner invented quantum cryptography (and a whole lot of other things) in the late 1960s. But his paper was turned down for publication. It was the early 80s before anything appeared in print, and even then it came from people who knew of Wiesner’s ideas. My guess, though, is that the idea would have arrived anyway by about 1985 or 1986. So 15-20 years.

  3. I’m not sure if this fits exactly what you’re asking for, but Mendel’s initial work in genetics – done in the 1850s and 1860s – was not well appreciated until it was later ‘rediscovered’ in the early 20th century. Now I don’t know enough about mid-19th century biological research to know for sure that Mendel was outside of the mainstream with his ideas, or simply too far on the fringe of the community geographically to be on anyone’s radar. But it seems plausible.

  4. The examples so far are of science that was discovered by a more-or-less-lone genius and then neglected until the time was ripe for a rediscovery or re-appreciation or however you want to call it. Are there examples of a lone genius discovering something and getting it to take off?

    I suppose that STimulated Emission Depletion, a way of doing microscopy beyond the diffraction limit, might fit the bill. Stefan Hell published a paper outlining the theoretical idea in the 1990’s and kept working on it and bringing it to experimental fruition while working on other stuff as well. It took some time to get wide appreciation but he’s become a leader in the field; he isn’t somebody whose paper languished in obscurity before being rediscovered in a different era with different players.

  5. I think Cavendish might make a good argument for at least trvial revolutions in science. He made many discoveries that, because he didn’t publish them in his lifetime (and nobody really went through his estate thoroughly until much later), ended up not being known by the scientific community until other people had replicated his work, often a century after the fact.

    I call them trivial discoveries (involving measurements and easily replicable mathematical relationships in thermodynamics, electromagnetism, etc., rather than any deep theories) as some of them did not necessarily involve huge paradigm shifts, but they would almost have to be such, if there’s any truth to the steam-engine view, since an idea too far ahead of its time would not be accepted even if someone did discover and publish it.

    A counter example, black holes as discussed by John Michel, based on an argument of escape velocity and the speed of light, well before Einstein. This did not garner much notice at the time (too far ahead of its time). So sometimes things seem to follow a progression where they have their own time, and sometimes an individual could conceivably make a difference. Which is which is case-by-case.

  6. Einstein and Hilbert corresponded a fair bit and arrived at General Relativity at roughly the same time, to the extent that the issue of priority has been controversial at times. It’s tough to say what would have happened absent the correspondence, however.

  7. Maxwell’s invention of the displacement current and prediction of electromagnetic waves gets my vote. It took two decades before Hertz tested it experimentally.

    I’d disagree that Special Relativity was “in the air”. Two reasons.

    1) It truly was a paradigm shift, not a new discovery. (Even the discovery that what we call the Lorentz transforms leave Maxwell’s equations invariant had been made a decade before Lorentz discovered those transformations.) Lorentz had worked for many years on a theory for the electromagnetic origin of mass, with the key idea that the mass physically increased when the electron got distorted by length contraction when it was moving in the fixed aether. This model was as anti-relativity as you can imagine. (It was not quite the start of the ideas we now deal with via renormalization, but it took them very seriously.) Lorentz, and everyone else, held that the only solution to the light-speed observations was to assume a preferred reference frame and add some complicated physics to it.

    2) Special Relativity remained controversial enough that it was never awarded a Nobel Prize. Apparently it took some time to accept the clarity and beauty of simply articulating that you can explain those measurements by merely assuming that Maxwell’s equations were a valid physical law that must be equally valid in any “first law” inertial coordinate system. Some appeared to say “duh” and slap their foreheads, but many did not get it.

  8. I don’t think continental drift fits. Plate tectonics and continental drift were discovered by accident in the 1950s when the U.S. military set up a network of seismometers to monitor nuclear testing and they mapped the sea floor for use by submariners. You can’t say that one person speeded the discovery because the discovery waited for the evidence and when the evidence was at hand it didn’t really matter whether somebody had proposed the theory earlier.

  9. One name from genetics is Barbara McClintock for her work on transposons in corn during the early 50s that did not become widely accepted until similar work was accomplished in bacteria in the late 60s/early seventies. The initial hostility to her work led her to stop publishing her results until much laer.

  10. Aaron – Hilbert didn’t do his work independently of Einstein. As I recall the story, Einstein gave some lectures in Gottingen (?) that brought Hilbert up to speed on much of Einstein’s thinking about GR. Without those lectures it’s doubtful that Hilbert would ever have worked on the problem, much less arrived at a solution.

  11. Bose Einstein Condensate:
    A Bose–Einstein condensate (BEC) is a state of matter of a dilute gas of weakly interacting bosons confined in an external potential and cooled to temperatures very near to absolute zero (0 K, −273.15 °C, or −459.67 °F). Under such conditions, a large fraction of the bosons occupy the lowest quantum state of the external potential, and all wave functions overlap each other, at which point quantum effects become apparent on a macroscopic scale

    This state of matter was first predicted by Satyendra Nath Bose and Albert Einstein in 1924–25

    Seventy years later, the first gaseous condensate was produced by Eric Cornell and Carl Wieman in 1995 at the University of Colorado at Boulder NIST-JILA lab, using a gas of rubidium atoms cooled to 170 nanokelvin (nK) [2] (1.7×10−7 K). Cornell, Wieman, and Wolfgang Ketterle at MIT were awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physics in Stockholm, Sweden for their achievements

    Bose Einstein Condensate (BEC’s) are now of huge interest in the scientific field. They now recognized BEC ase a fifth state of matter. They have also created lasers that supercool an atom, & can then use other lasers to propel or manipulate the BEC. basically sending an atom (matter) through a lense & reflecting it. They can even mix 2 different “atom lasers” to create molecules.

    Also, BEC also is spoken about alot recently because of new technology that such as the aparatus that has recorded the new effect: Magnetomagnetic London Moment. Spinning superconductive copper coils create a sort of gravitomagnetic field. Some say we can harness this to create anti gravity technologies. Which brings another name to mind, Telsa, which i think someone mentioned for his innovation in alternative energy.

    BEC’s rock!

  12. Another note, BEC’s are also beeing looked at for Quantum computing. Another amazing thing is Superfluids. Superconductive gases or fluids. Another fact is that Bose Einsein Condensates act like a wave functions oposed to a particle, which matter usually is. Just like light, which has wav particle duality, BEC’s have it too. Some bec’s have been foujnd recently at warmer temperatures than the usual −459.67 °F. Look it up, theres always news about it recently.

  13. I took up a theme from John Wilkins and extended or modified it and Chad has taken it from me and modified it again. When this happens in the blogasphere I find it really exciting and an illustration of one of the strenths of blogging.

    On the whole I think it is fairly rare for somebody to come up with something in science that is truly in advance of its times but there are a few examples. As all of the contributors here seem to think that the history of science doesn’t go back further than the 19th century I shall contribute a couple of examples from antiquity.

    Firstly Aristarchos proposed a heliocentric solar system about 1700 years before Copernicus. It didn’t succeed because it contradicted all the available empirical evidence.

    Archimedes an almost contemporary of Aristarchos used analytical mathematical methods when nearly all of his fellow Greeks were using synthetic ones and in so doing came pretty close to a full blown integral calculus almost 2000 years before Leibniz and Newton.

  14. Someone proposed continental drift as “ahead of its time”, and this bothers me a bit. It is true that until the plate tectonic evidence started to pour in (in the 50s), Wegener’s ideas were radical. But at the same time as Wegener was doing his botanical and paleontological studies, Einstein was working on General Relativity and quantum mechanics was gaining mainstream acceptance. In the geological sciences, Wegener was considered a bit of an oddball, and in hindsight he heralded modern geology (astonishing considering he wasn’t really a geologist), but since similarly revolutionary ideas were taking shape at his time in other fields, perhaps the world really was ready for Wegener, or someone else, to become that oddball. Maybe lots of people were scratching their heads at the matching coastlines of the continents but he was the only one with the balls to suggest that they were once joined, an insane idea if you don’t have a mechanism for them to separate and move around.

    I guess you could say that developments in philosophical discourse are often predictive of future scientific discourse. It’s too bad philosophy has only recently become an experimental field; with the benefit of the scientific method who knows what the Greeks could have done?

  15. My hypothesis is would be that these things rarely occur to single individuals totally independently. Everyone has influences around them who shape their thinking. There are also enough scientists that its fairly likely that given an approximate definition of an idea yet to be refined to specifics there will be several people thinking it simultaneously. As a fairly typical research scientist, I can confirm that most of the work, filling in the gap between speculations and theory, is hard slog. Rewarding work but hard work not just lone geniuses shouting “Eureka!”. Inspiration is valuable and inspired ideas feed each other, but at some point that inspiration has to be tested and that means hard work, normally by groups of researchers.

  16. My question is specifically for Thony C, since he’s the available historian of Renaissance mathematics. Who besides Descartes do you think would have developed analytical geometry roughly within the same period of time?

  17. Escape velocity at black holes is many times higher than the velocity of light. Light does not emit from the black holes. Gravity waves emanate from the black holes. At the time of such emission the speed of gravity wave should be also much higher than the speed of light ‘c’. In fact light is the manifestation of action of gravitation force at the time of birth of a star.

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