Saturday, February 27, 2010


This is the fourth in a multi-part blog on the topic of FIRST CREDIT in the sciences.

Johann Franz Encke (1791 - 1865) is given credit for the discovery of [Encke's] comet (1818), but Encke merely calculated the orbit, using a technique first developed more than a century earlier by Edmond Halley (1656-1742). In 1705, Halley applied Newton's laws of physics to correctly predict that a particular comet (known today as Halley's comet), observed in 1531, 1607, and 1682, would return in 1758. The comet known today as Encke's comet was named after a person who neither first-sighted the comet nor discovered the methodology to predict the comet's orbit. The person who made the first sight of the commet has descended into scientific obscurity.

Johann Franz Encke.
Source: Wikipedia (public domain).

When a new technology becomes available to the practitioners of a field, it often happens that a new discovery is made by multiple independent researchers, simultaneously. For example, sunspots were discovered by Thomas Harriot (England, 1610), Johannes and David Fabricius (Frisia, now parts of The Netherlands and Germany, 1611), Galileo Galilei (Italy, 1612), and Christoph Scheiner (Germany, 1612). First credit usually goes to the most influential of the discoverers.

© 2010 Jules Berman

key words: history of science , specified life blog , Jules J Berman PhD, MD
Science is not a collection of facts. Science is what facts teach us; what we can learn about our universe, and ourselves, by deductive thinking. From observations of the night sky, made without the aid of telescopes, we can deduce that the universe is expanding, that the universe is not infinitely old, and why black holes exist. Without resorting to experimentation or mathematical analysis, we can deduce that gravity is a curvature in space-time, that the particles that compose light have no mass, that there is a theoretical limit to the number of different elements in the universe, and that the earth is billions of years old. Likewise, simple observations on animals tell us much about the migration of continents, the evolutionary relationships among classes of animals, why the nuclei of cells contain our genetic material, why certain animals are long-lived, why the gestation period of humans is 9 months, and why some diseases are rare and other diseases are common. In “Armchair Science”, the reader is confronted with 129 scientific mysteries, in cosmology, particle physics, chemistry, biology, and medicine. Beginning with simple observations, step-by-step analyses guide the reader toward solutions that are sometimes startling, and always entertaining. “Armchair Science” is written for general readers who are curious about science, and who want to sharpen their deductive skills.