Stigler's Law: Why nothing in science is ever named after its actual discoverer

Do you want your share of scientific immortality? You can devote your life to mastering your field, examining the mysteries of the universe, and then finally arriving at one great discovery...but according to Stigler's Law, you won't get the credit.

Stigler's Law of eponymy holds that scientific laws and discoveries are never given the names of their actual discoverers. We can find it everywhere throughout the history of science, in physics, medicine, chemistry, mathematics, you name it - and even someone as legendary as Nicolaus Copernicus wasn't immune. But this isn't just (or even mostly) about credit-stealing. This is about the difference between how we tend to think science works and how it actually works.

What is Stigler's Law?

Stigler's Law: Why nothing in science is ever named after its actual discovererS

In its strongest, simplest form, Stigler's Law tells us "No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer." The term was coined by University of Chicago statistics professor Stephen Stigler (left) in a 1980 paper. Stigler was building on a number of earlier ideas, including that of the sociologist Robert K. Merton, whose Matthew Effect held that scientists who are already famous are more likely to get credit for a new discovery than their still unknown peers, no matter if the former's research is identical or inferior to that of the latter.

In an email to io9, Stephen Stigler explained how he first came up with Stigler's Law:

In 1979 I was invited to contribute to a festschrift for the sociologist Robert K. Merton. It was an unusual invitation, since at the time I had only met Merton through correspondence, never in person, and I was at first reluctant to accept. But after thinking about two areas of Merton's work I got an idea.

Merton was a pioneer in the sociology of science, and had written an influential paper on how and why so many scientific discoveries are multiple discoveries – found by more than one individual at different places and times. And he had written on the importance of priority in science as a part of the reward system, with eponymy being one of the highest honors. Merton was also interested in self-referential rules – the term self-fulfilling prophecy was introduced by him. I knew of a number of examples of mis-applied eponyms, and upon reflection I conceived of an explanation as to why this should be expected. At that point the Law named itself, and the paper followed quickly.

Stigler lays out a number of reasons in his paper as to why the correct scientist is so rarely honored with a law named after him or her. He points out that laws are not generally named by historians of science - the one group that makes it its business to figure out who discovered what - but instead the community of practicing scientists, who are naturally less likely to do a lot of intensive research to figure out who first came up with an idea.

Moreover, most people don't get scientific principles named after them during their lifetimes. Generally, this honor is bestowed much later, and by that time the intervening decades and centuries makes it difficult to pinpoint just who really was the first. And even then, the scientists who get the laws named after them are more likely to be honored for their general importance to the field rather than any one particular discovery, even if they're supposedly being honored for one specific moment in their careers.

As a matter of fact, Stigler's Law is itself an example of Stigler's Law, and that was by design. As Stigler himself suggests, it really could have been called Merton's Law, but it actually predates both of them. H.C. Kennedy had coined Boyer's Law in 1972, which said much the same thing as Stigler's but restricted itself to mathematics - for his part, C.B. Boyer had devoted quite a bit of his History of Mathematics for providing examples of this phenomenon.

The renowned mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead stated the most general possible version of the law when he said, "Everything of importance has been said before by somebody who did not discover it." And Stephen Stigler's own father, the economist George Stigler, had argued that there were many instances in which an early version of theory failed to gain traction but would be accepted later when science was ready for it. Perhaps the law really could still have been called Stigler's Law while giving credit to one of its original discoverers.

The Law in Action

Stigler's Law: Why nothing in science is ever named after its actual discovererS

You can find examples of Stigler's Law in pretty much any area of science you care to look at. Let's take a look at medicine. Alois Alzheimer (left) gets the credit for describing in the early 1900s the degenerative disease that bears his name, but the real credit for first discovering the illness probably goes to a Dr. Beljahow, who first linked plaque and dementia in 1887 but is now so forgotten that I couldn't even find records of his first name.

Edmond Halley did some crucial work computing the orbit and period of his famous comet, but its actual discover is probably an unknown Greek living in the 3rd century BCE. Freeman Dyson popularized the concept of Dyson spheres as a form of mega-engineering around stars, but he has repeatedly pointed out that early sci-fi author Olaf Stapledon deserves the credit for coming up with them. Sometimes we get entire regions wrong - the Arabic numerals we use very day actually originated in India, but Europeans gave them that name because they were first introduced to the numerals in the 10th century by Arabs from North Africa.

Stigler's Law: Why nothing in science is ever named after its actual discovererS

A particularly egregious example is the Kuiper Belt, the second asteroid belt that lies beyond Neptune and includes Pluto and other dwarf planets. Frederick C. Leonard was the first to theorize the existence of such a belt shortly after Clyde Tombaugh's discovery of Pluto in 1930, while its actual discoverers were David Jewitt and Jane Luu, who announced they had found the first definitive evidence for its existence in 1992. Either way, the credit really shouldn't go to Gerard Kuiper, who in 1951 said such a belt could have existed in the early days of the solar system, but he was pretty certain that it wasn't around anymore.

Stigler's Law: Why nothing in science is ever named after its actual discovererS

Then there's salmonella, which you might not even have realized was named after somebody. The bacterium was first identified in 1885 by Theobald Smith (left), who went on to more lasting fame as America's first globally important epidemiologist. But when he discovered salmonella, he was just an inspector at the newly formed Bureau of Animal Industry and only a couple years out of college, so it was his boss Daniel E. Salmon who got the credit instead. Admittedly, smithella doesn't have quite the same ring to it, and I'm guessing Smith wasn't too torn up over not attaching his name to that particular discovery.

As a general rule, Stigler's Law tends to favor more established scientists, a fact that we'll discuss further in a moment. But even these have exceptions. For instance, the 16th century English merchant Thomas Gresham isn't particularly well-known these days, but he lives on with Gresham's Law, which is an economic principle that is often simplified as "bad money drives out good." But the law had already been described in 1519, the year of Gresham's birth, by a Polish scientist named Nicolaus Copernicus, who went on to slightly greater fame with some mildly controversial theories about astronomy. (Of course, whether he got proper credit for that in the wake of Galileo is another matter entirely.)

What Stigler's Law means for science

Stigler's Law: Why nothing in science is ever named after its actual discovererS

While the law just deals with who gets scientific breakthroughs named after them, we can use it to look at how scientific credit gets parceled out in a much larger sense. If the law is any indication , then scientists - and, indeed, the public in general - are continually drawn to "heroic" theories of scientific discovery, in which a single great man or woman issues forth truth fully formed out of the howling void of chaotic ignorance. In that understanding, evolution didn't exist until Charles Darwin summoned it into existence with the publication of On the Origin of Species - despite the fact that he credits 18 earlier scientists in that very volume for describing "Darwinian" evolution before he did.

Now, obviously, I'm being dramatic, and most people would probably assume that Darwin was working from some previous research when he formulated evolution and natural selection. But in terms of how the discovery of evolution is taught and how it lingers on in the public consciousness, is anyone other than Darwin really remembered? How many of those 18 earlier scientists could most people name?

Then there's the simple fact that the most famous names in science just keep on accumulating an "unfair" share of the credit, even relative to their actual out-sized contributions to their fields. Just look at Leonhard Euler and Carl Friedrich Gauss, indisputably two of the most important mathematicians of the 18th and early 19th centuries. And yet Euler's number (better known as the constant e) was actually discovered by Jacob Bernouli, Euler's formula was more or less demonstrated by Roger Cotes three decades before Euler, Gauss's Theorem was discovered by Joseph Louis Lagrange and first proved by Mikhail Vasilievich Ostrogradsky, and Gaussian distribution was introduced by Abraham de Moivre 61 years before Gauss popularized it. Euler and Gauss were unarguably great mathematicians, but going by everything named after them you'd think they were the only mathematicians from 1700 to 1850.

Stigler's Law: Why nothing in science is ever named after its actual discoverer

Even the most singular scientific breakthroughs don't happen in a vacuum. Consider Albert Einstein and the theories of special and general relativity. The popular conception of his story is that he was an obscure Swiss patent clerk who, through sheer force of his genius and from well outside the stagnant scientific elite, issued forth the two most important theories in 20th century physics. Leaving aside the historical inaccuracies - Einstein was pretty much an established academic when he published his four groundbreaking papers in 1905 - there's the simple fact that Einstein emphatically did not work in a vacuum. Earlier scientists like Hendrik Lorentz and Henri Poincaréi had provided key groundwork for Einstein's work with special relativity, and debates continue to rage to what extent Marcel Grossman and David Hilbert deserve credit for general relativity.

None of this is meant to denigrate Darwin, Euler, Gauss, or Einstein, who are rightly recognized as giants of their fields. But their examples point to some basic principles of how scientific discoveries tend to work . Big new theories only tend to catch on when the larger scientific community is ready for them, or when an already established scientist can find a use for it in his or her work - like De Moivre's distribution, which took six decades before Gauss used it in such a way that other mathematicians took notice. And, generally speaking, when a really big breakthrough comes along, like Darwinian evolution or Einstein's relativity, we - and that "we" includes scientists themselves - tend to forget all the incremental steps that led up to the big leap forward, and so we only remember that one big discovery that seemingly came out of nowhere.

That makes for a cleaner, more dramatic history of science, and so it's not hard to understand why it lingers on in the public imagination. Stigler's Law, however, is a good reminder of just how collaborative and complex the processes of scientific discovery really are - the point here isn't so much that the wrong person gets credit as it is that the very idea that a single individual can get credit for a discovery is, well...a bit ridiculous. So keep that in mind the next time you're using Indian numerals or checking your kitchen for smithella, or when looking up at the heavens towards the Leonard-Jewitt-Luu belt or the Stapledon spheres that might lie beyond - maybe it doesn't matter precisely who does science, as long as it gets done at all, because we clearly aren't capable of sorting it out anyway.