death comes in threes, science works in twos...?
November 19, 2004 3:40 AM   Subscribe

When reading a book about Newton V's Leibniz recently, it occurred to me that great advances in Science often seem to occur in tandem, ie two unrelated persons or groups often arrive at a breakthrough at roughly the same time. Is this true? Can anyone think of some other examples? Can anyone explain why this may be the case?
posted by kev23f to Science & Nature (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
An oft-proffered answer to this question is Morphic Resonance - that there is, effectively, some intra-special memory to which we all have access, and once something has been done once, it's "imprint" is in that "meta-memory" for all to access.

Whether you consider such an explanation fanciful or otherwises, there are plenty of papers written by MR cheerleader Rupert Sheldrake here.
posted by benzo8 at 3:55 AM on November 19, 2004

Generally, it's because science is largely a process of accretion, new ideas build on the body of work that has gone before. Inevitably, different researchers will be working in similar areas and thus sometimes come up with similar results at about the same time. See also the 'Standing on the Shoulders of Giants' meme that seems popular on MeFi this week. Of course it's also possible to have really big discoveries that change things pretty radically - I would guess these are less likely to occur simultaneously.
posted by biffa at 4:09 AM on November 19, 2004

i think those times might have passed.
these days, it's either one or many. if there's a really hard problem, then an isolated genius might find a solution (this has happened a couple of times in maths, recently), but generally communication in science is fast and efficient (preprints on the 'net now dominate published papers, at least in the areas i know about) so each small advance is telegraphed around the world, and people flock around new ideas.
in contrast, i believe (kind of out of my depth here) that in newton/leibnitz time, there were far fewer people studying, and communication was much slower. so people could work in parallel, unknowingly, for a long time, building systems that took very different approaches to the same problem.
if you're interested in this kind of thing, there's a history of the development of set theory, called "the search for mathematical roots" that goes into lots of (rather tedious) detail about how that developed. it's perhaps an intermediate case - if i could remember in detail iwould guess there were times when two people were working in parallel, but also other times when one or many carried the torch.
(arguing against myself - i'm not sure how much newton and leibniz were aware of each other, so i may be wrong there - the above is just a wild guess.)
as another example - maybe you could look at the two parallel approaches in early quantum mechanics. i suspect that was two groups as much as two individuals, though.
posted by andrew cooke at 4:30 AM on November 19, 2004

Well, I was going to suggest nylon as an example (NY - London) but it appears that I was wrong. (Or the last editor of that page was wrong...)
posted by gi_wrighty at 4:32 AM on November 19, 2004

John Gribbin's Science: A History comments on this at length. Basically he says what Biffa is saying: science is a gradual process and inevitably with increased communication, people end up discovering things pretty much at the same time. Gribbin makes the interesting point that if you removed any single person who made a key scientific breakthrough from history, it'd end up getting discovered not too long afterwards by someone else. The true exceptions, such as Newton, are just that - exceptions.
posted by adrianhon at 5:02 AM on November 19, 2004

The classic example is Elisha Gray, who filed a caveat (describing the invention of the telephone) at the patent office just hours after Alexander Graham Bell filed a full patent application. (Interestingly enough, Bell's apparatus as described in the patent application didn't work, whereas Gray's did.)

In a bit of googling, this interesting essay turned up.
posted by Vidiot at 5:52 AM on November 19, 2004

excellent stuff all round folks, thank you very much. Maybe there aren't aren't as many examples of this as i originally thought though, ultimately nobody cares who came in second place i guess. However if anyone thinks of some other examples i'd love to know. Thanks again.
posted by kev23f at 6:21 AM on November 19, 2004

Another classic example would of course be Charles Darwin & Alfred Russel Wallace coming up with the theory of natural selection independently. (To their credit, they worked things out much more amicably than Newton & Leibniz.) Once again, the groundwork had been laid by a number of previous thinkers. (Evolution was widely discussed, only the mechanism remained to be discovered.)
posted by tdismukes at 6:47 AM on November 19, 2004

Darwin and Wallace is perhaps the best example of all (and the best example of a good resolution). Neptune was discovered by two mathematicians independently, in the same year. This article by the director of the Nobel Foundation discusses some of the simultaneous discoveries that have won the Nobel Prize.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:11 AM on November 19, 2004

And an example of Nobel-Prize-winning simultaneous discoveries.

In the article linked above, the Nobel director suggests that "simultaneous discoveries are unthinkable in art or literature." My own experience suggests that that is utter nonsense.

I spent a long time in the early 90s writing a novel in diary form about the romantic misadventures of a neurotic young woman who had a difficult relationship with crazy parents, an inappropriate workplace crush, and an obsession with her weight. I was pretty pleased about how it was going, until Bridget Jones's Diary came out.

So was this some kind of great cosmic joke on me? Of course not. There was a lot of media coverage about thirty-something single women and their love lives at the time; several "diary-form" comic novels had done very well (my guess is that Fielding and I were both inspired by Sue Townsend's brilliant The Diaries of Adrian Mole); and there was a real sense that the literary marketplace wasn't catering to the kind of young woman who felt herself too sophisticated to read Harlequin/Mills & Boon romances, but who found "serious" contemporary literature not fun enough for airplane rides, bubble baths, etc.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:17 AM on November 19, 2004

Not exactly a scientific discovery, but the relatively recent decoding of the human genome is another example of the "standing on the shoulders of giants" -- there were two parties taking different approaches to doing it, but both depended not only on a lot of groundbreaking work in genetics, but also on huge advances in computing to support the decoding effort. It's another case of having both the intellectual groundwork and the physical tools progress to a point where several smart people perk up and say "you know, X should be possible."

You see this with software development a lot too. The Audion Story (long but interesting) is a good example.
posted by adamrice at 7:50 AM on November 19, 2004

"Can anyone explain why this may be the case?" At the risk of covering some ground already traversed above, you might consider the following. Any teacher will tell you that you cannot answer a question until it has been asked. It is as if the pupil, prior to forming the question, is deaf to any answer.

As our understanding of the world in which we live grows answer by answer, there is a finite set of questions which constitute the "leading edge" at any point in that growth. Some of those questions will be unanswerable at that time because the tools are yet to be invented that might provide such answers. In other cases, the necessary concepts or language may not yet exist which would permit the adequate communication of an intuition or insight. Thus, there is a relatively small set of 'practical' questions at the leading edge at any given point in history.

Since mathematics is internally consistent (by definition), it is to be expected that multiple approaches to answering a given question should produce answers that are similar. Sometimes, the attempt to fit a tool to the question provokes a breakthrough in the tool (Newton/calculus). But the same principle applies to the tools as to the questions.

Thus, given a finite set of questions and a finite set of tools, the resulting breakthroughs are limited at any point in time. Since there are many who are engaged in advancing the frontiers of knowledge, such synchronicities should be expected.
posted by RMALCOLM at 9:06 AM on November 19, 2004

I tend to agree that the more common case is that one or more scientists/inventors are usually converging on the same idea at the same time. But, as has been said, history tends to only glorify the winner and research on the also-rans gets relegated to something studied only by science historians, like the case of Rosalind Franklin and the discovery of DNA.

In Physics, for example, I'd find it more difficult to come up with examples of discoveries where there *weren't* two or more people independently working on the same idea. In his biography of Feynman, Gleick goes into detail at Feynman's surprise when he discovered that many of the same intuitions he was having about QED (Quantum Electrodynamics) were also being arrived at by others like Julian Schwinger. In the end, Feynman ended up sharing the Nobel prize with Schwinger and if you look at the history of the Nobel physics prize you'll see that many of the co-winners are not people who worked together but people who had arrived at things at the same time and then, in some cases, joined cause near the end.

Relativity is usually cited as a good example as the work of one man, But even there, much of the formalism behind Relativity was already around. Poincare, in particular, already was playing with the ideas of Relativity and much of its implications. But Poincare was well-regarded and Relativity was (and still is) just very strange. You could argue that in this case it took the nothing-to-lose courage of an unknown to state what others were afraid to state -The speed of light is the same for all observers- and follow the implications of that courageously through until the very end. Without Einstein, Relativity would have been delayed a bit - it was an idea slightly before its time - but it would have become eventually, inevitable.

Its the same with Quantum Mechanics. The basics of QM were also invented independently, by Schrodinger and Heisenberg. Schrodinger took the approach of integrals and wave functions to try to describe what was going on. Heisenberg used linear algebra and matrix manipulations. For a while, scientists were baffled as to why there were two theories that described the same thing. It took the genius Paul Dirac (off-topic: one of the great men in physics and an idol of Feynman's) to actually show and prove, mathematically, that Schrodinger and Heisenberg were saying the same thing. Today, you can use either the wave formulation or the matrix formulation of quantum mechanics. They are each suited to solving different problems but they are the same theory.
posted by vacapinta at 9:12 AM on November 19, 2004

Once again, the groundwork had been laid by a number of previous thinkers.

I think this is the crux of it. It's really just another way of saying that you can't answer the question until it's been asked (RMALCOM), people tend to be working on the same thing at the same time (lots of people), different windows onto the same phenomenon (vacapinta) ...and there are probably other ways to formulate it.

In fact, I'd argue that this thread, read carefully, illustrates Vacapinta's point. You'll find here many examples of ways to understand the same truths, with different applications depending on the shading of your question.

The way I like to put it is to say that there are preconditions for "discovery", and the two most important are: The tools and raw materials have to exist to make the tools (e.g., Newton & Leibnitz both had access to a real burgeoning in data from empirical research); and people have to want to know what you're telling them.

The second is the most interesting part, to me. Pure utility isn't enough; you have to expand your notion of utility to understand it, I think. E.g., Darwin's theories about natural selection were incredibly useful -- but not commercially, not right away. They were useful, rather, to brokers of ideas and ideology, albeit (Darwin argued and I'd agree) in a bastardized form.

One of the advantages of the "western scientific" approach is that we will often pursue lines for purely abstract "utility" -- the usefulness of something comes down, often, to how much it helps us go farther forward.
posted by lodurr at 9:42 AM on November 19, 2004

The classic example is that "it steam engines when it's steam engine time," as Charles Fort remarked after noting that several inventors were toying around with steam-powered engines at the same moment in history. Robert Anton Wilson likes to use that as an example of his Jumping Jesus Phenomenon, which is a more sane, logical take on Morphic Resonance. Sorta like combining benzo8 and biffa's answers: as we have faster communication and more knowledge available to us, certain advances become inevitable as we search for patterns in an ever-increasing sea of data, and it seems as if multiple people are getting hit with the same idea at the same time. Once all the pieces of data needed for an answer are there, it's just a matter of who gets there first with the question (Ken Jennings, of course). Now, morphic resonance is just a metaphor; otherwise, there shouldn't have been such a long lag between ancient Greek inventors playing around with steam-powered novelty toys and sliding doors and the industrial revolution. An idea can't just be "out there" psychically, it has to have entered culture in a more material way, through being published and distributed, be it on parchment or pdf. As long as you don't take them too literally, pseudo-mystic explanations like Morphic Resonance and Jumping Jesus are helpful maps to the territory.
posted by jbrjake at 10:11 AM on November 19, 2004

ah, wallace vs. darwin - wallace sends darwin his manuscript, and darwin (after sitting on his own idea for so long) graciously publishes it, rather than stifling it long enough to drop his own bomb on the world of biology just so he could say he was first. not that it wasn't obvious from the bulk of his work, he did indeed have a more mature theory than did wallace at the time. if only more people were still this amicable and honorable when placed in similar situations.
posted by caution live frogs at 10:18 AM on November 19, 2004

I'm not by any means an expert on the history of science, but my impression was that the defining work in this area had been done by Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It's been a while since I read this, and I don't remember to what degree he goes into your question, but I suspect he talks about it a great deal.

Wikipedia Entry on SSR
A Guide to SSR
An Excerpt From SSR
posted by Hildago at 10:41 AM on November 19, 2004

As far as the mechanism behind this phenomenon, others seem to be answering better than I could. I'll just note this very interesting account of one particular example. This New Yorker book review discusses the race to understand DNA.
posted by stuart_s at 11:39 AM on November 19, 2004

There's certainly value in Kuhn's approach, but like many important ideas, it's easily misappropriated. The Bushites are a great example of that -- they seem to essentially believe that scientific truth is simply a matter of concensus belief. I don't recall that being what Kuhn meant, but it's often taken as his meaning. (Much as Darwin is often invoked to justify racial supremacy theories.)

I also don't really believe that working paradigms are even frequenly, much less always, incomparable. Pre-Copernican systems, for example, could be said to simply be predicated on incorrect assumptions; similarly, one could argue that Copernicus merely simplified the system, but didn't really expand it to the idea of a functionally non-finite universe.

Aside: John Crowley does some intersting playing with this in his novel Aegypt; he tries to illustrate the "paradigm shifts" as evanescent things that hardly anybody notices when they happen, but which somehow, at the same time, change everything. But because everything is changed -- no one sees the change. A paradox... The same idea shows up by implication in his earlier books The Deep and Little, Big, but he hadn't really grappled with it head on until Aegypt. (Alas, I haven't gotten very far with the rest of the books in that tetralogy, so I don't know if he takes it further.)

That said, and as I've said, I don't really buy the idea of complete paradigm shifts. It's an attractive idea, and at some level I'd like to believe it, but I just don't buy it.
posted by lodurr at 12:47 PM on November 19, 2004

I agree with lodurr. Usually paradigm shifts are greeted as threatening by the dominant culture and are "killed off" or strongly suppressed. If they do emerge it is usually by invasion or revolution. In either case, that new paradigm must have been around developing for some time before it has enough momentum to be able to replace the original culture or its point of view.

Even the scientific and medical communities display this pattern. Paradigm shifts are given short shrift in the reviewed literature until they gain enough momentum to be taken seriously. A good example is Norman Cousins.
posted by RMALCOLM at 1:37 PM on November 19, 2004

I actually think that Kuhn is much, much less useful on this particular aspect of the topic than is Gerald Holton's The Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought, a book which I highly recommend.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:19 PM on November 19, 2004

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