Academic journal article Studies in Sociology of Science

Simultaneity in the Scientific Enterprise

Academic journal article Studies in Sociology of Science

Simultaneity in the Scientific Enterprise

Article excerpt

"We are inclined to think that, with respect to every great addition which has been made to the stock of human knowledge, the case has been similar: that without Copernicus we should have been Copernicans--that without Columbus America would have been discovered--that without Locke we should have possessed a just theory of the origin of human ideas."

--Lord Macaulay, 1880 (cited in Merton, 1961)


It is remarkable to note that ideas which advance the state of human scientific knowledge seem to not to be limited to one individual at a particular moment in history. Thus, Newton and Leibniz both invented the calculus, thought in stunningly different ways. Newton's method for the calculus, which is certainly understood today to be equivalent to Leibniz's, uses a geometric conception, while Leibniz's work is more purely analytical, albeit with geometric analogs. Neither man admitted the other's contribution as original.

This bears on one of the most important subjects in the sociology of knowledge, and one might add of our conception of history: the theory of "multiples". Merton (1973) comments on these phenomena, by noting that

   Sometimes the discoveries are simultaneous or almost so; sometimes
   a scientist will make a new discovery which, unknown to him,
   somebody else has made years before.

Merton develops this "multiples' hypothesis" in his paper, opining that multiple discoveries are the most common pattern in science, and that unique discoveries are rarer. Zuckerman (1977) and Lamp and Easton (1984) have brought forward similar ideas on this theory of multiples, and the reader can certainly bring to mind other examples, including the works of Descartes and Bacon, who many consider the actual authors of modernity.

If we look at the history of the Nobel Prize in the sciences, a general useful indicator of the most important discoveries in science, we can find that the majority of the Nobel prizes are occasions where "multiples" have occurred: That is, there are similar threads of investigation which lead to independent discoveries of similar import. Cole (2004) suggests that "great men or women of science might speed the rate of intellectual advance, but they are not necessary for that advance." The question of priority would seem with this gloss to be one that is at least in some small part arbitrary.

There are certainly what should be called "single" discoveries in the Nobel Pantheon. For example, the winners of the Nobel in Physics 2010, which was awarded to two scientists from Manchester University working together to produce a new material named "graphene".

The concept of truly new ideas being brought forth has indeed been questioned. Stigler (1980)5 in characterizing his "law of eponymy," suggests that "science accepts ideas only when they fit into the then-current state of the science." But this is clearly not the case for radically new conceptions.

New conceptions actually seem to change the paradigm of scientific thought. In Kuhn's (1962) nowclassic work, "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions," Kuhn posits what might be called an Hegelian reformation of thought. It has not escaped our notice that supposing such a "revolution" does in fact have as one of its underlying assumptions a particular theory of history that is essentially Hegelian.

One can hypothesize different modes for the origination of genuinely new ideas. Following the classification system of Brannigan and Wanner (1983), the scientific discoveries can be classified into three types of models:

The genius models (de Sola Price, 1961)

The cultural maturation models or zeitgeist (Merton, 1973; Hegel, 1979)

The chance models (Simonton, 1979)

In the cultural maturation models, the evolution of research programs is more important than the input of individual workers. …

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