Science is all about discovery and invention. Discoveries can come from slow hunches or even spontaneously. What isn’t normally considered is the possibility of the same discovery occurring by two different people. The concept of multiple discovery, otherwise known as simultaneous invention, suggests that scientific discoveries are typically made independently of one another but simultaneously by many scientists. Essentially, more than one scientist has independently discovered the same thing.
This anthology profiles 15 examples of multiple discoveries in various historical situations and books that we have read this semester. From the discovery of evolution to the discovery of a carbon nanotube, it is important to understand the many types of discoveries, the time frame, and the context in which each item was discovered. Furthermore, while these examples are offered, this anthology aims to aid in the understanding of how multiple discoveries contribute to the success of of the scientific field.
One such example of a multiple discovery is the development of the theory of evolution. The theory of evolution was developed by both Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace. Both biologists were English scientists who worked to understand the way in which populations changed over time. Straying away from the human population, both scientists wanted to focused on animal and plant populations. While Wallace and Darwin initially worked together to gain inspiration, they set off on their own journeys to solidify their independent theories of population change. Darwin focused on the Galapagos Islands during his solo travels in 1835, while Wallace targeted South America and Asia. The most interesting of facts comes from the idea that both Wallace and Darwin had individually come up with similar theories after their own independent studies. While Wallace did not publish, his ideas were accounted for in Darwin’s book the Origin of Species which suggested that populations change via the mechanism of natural selection, which Darwin described as “Differential survival or reproduction of different genotypes in a population leading to changes in the gene frequencies of a population. The conditions required for the operation of evolution by natural selection include variation, a system of heredity, differential production, and time.” This video deeply explains natural selection as well. Overall, this example is particularly important to address because although the theory was independently developed by both Darwin and Wallace, they, in a sense, worked together in order to gain a better understanding of how populations changed. Additionally, both of these ideas were stemmed from the same curiosity and the same time period in which populations were observed.
Another important aspect of biology is the concept of the bacteriophage. According to Dr. Brent Gilpin’s discussion of bacteriophages, a bacteriophage is a virus that infects bacteria. Bacteriophages are pertinent to the understanding of how DNA replicates within a host cell upon infection. The bacteriophage was independently discovered by both Frederick Twort and Felix d'Herelle, although there is speculation about the way in which each discovery arose. Donna Duckworth's scientific article "Who Discovered the Bacteriophage?" discusses the controversy and history between Twort and d'Herelle's discoveries.
Twort was an English scientist who continued the research of predecessor Alexander Fleming after he observed dew-like droplets of staphylococcus on penicillin plates. During Twort’s experiments he observed that if the glassy, dew-like appearance of the staphylococcus colonies touched any pure non dew-like colonies, the pure colony would then become dew-like. From these observations Twort concluded that the glassy, dew-like colony was, in fact, infectious in 1915.
d'Herelle, a Canadian scientist, came up with similar ideas during his travels to Mexico, South America, and Indochina in 1910. He first observed that white culture had developed clear spots, which is considered to be due to a filtrate that infected the original white spots. During his time dealing with bacterial infections from WWI, he incubated a turbid culture broth and added a form of filtrate that mimics bacterial infections. He came to realize that the turbid broth had turned completely clear. He later published a book in 1917, which described the mechanism of bacteriophages and their infectious capabilities.
While both Twort and d'Herelle discovered bacteriophages to be infectious, d'Herelle is often discredited for the finding. It is argued that d'Herelle's methods in 1910 did not actually prove that bacteriophages were infectious and his published book in 1917 merely mimicked it Twort's 1915 discoveries.
Screenshot of "Who Discovered Bacteriophage?" - Courtesy of Bacteriological Reviews
Overall, this is an important “multiples” example to consider because while both independently discovered the effect of bacteriophages, was is just a mere coincidence that d’Herelle published the same findings as Twort, or did use Twort’s ideas to solidify his findings? In understanding multiple discoveries it is important to look at the context and timeframe behind the discovery itself.
Yet another example of a simultaneous discovery was that of oxygen discovered by both Joseph Priestley and Antoine Lavoisier in the 1774. While Priestley is credited for the discovery of oxygen, Lavoisier is credited for solidifying the role of oxygen with other elements. Thus while both simultaneous discovered oxygen, its relevance and importance was solidified by the collaboration between the two, much like that of Wallace and Darwin.
In 1774, Priestley conducted a series of experiments in which he discovered that "air is not an elementary substance, but a composition, or mixture, of gases. Among them was the colorless and highly reactive gas he called ‘dephlogisticated air.’” While in France, Priestley met scientist Lavoisier who was also working on the phlogiston theory. According to the American Chemical Society, as both Lavoisier and Priestley described their developments, Lavoisier was able to understand that, “Burning substances, Lavoisier argued, did not give off phlogiston; they took on Priestley's gas, which Lavoisier named ‘oxygen’ from the Greek word for acid-maker.” Thus, both Priestley and Lavoisier made advancements in the phlogiston theory, however, it wasn't until they understood their similar discoveries that they collaborated to formulate a clear and concise understanding of the role of oxygen. Below, depicts an image of Lavoisier demonstrating his methods.
Lavoisier demonstrating his methods of discovering oxygen - Image curiosity of Google
This is an important example to include, because while both scientists made advancements to the same theory, their similar work at the same time influenced their ability to collaborate. Thus, multiple discoveries don’t just deal with two different discoveries being made, but rather, usually promote collaboration and stepping stones for greater ideas to form - making progress to the science field as a whole.
The ideas of multiples are also seen within Steven Johnson’s book, Where Good Ideas Come From, as he describes a variety of different mechanisms for the way in which ideas are formed and prosper. He proposes that good ideas arise from slow hunches, happy accidents, failure, error, networks, platforms, and in combining all of those, the fourth quadrant. In his discussion of the fourth quadrant Johnson suggests that ideas come from other ideas that are used as the foundation or building blocks of more complex ideas. Essentially ideas become better and larger based on the use of individual developments. Johnson suggests that individual developments set the foundation for more complex ideas to arise. He couples his idea of networks in saying that “solo innovation surrenders much of its lead to the rising power of network and commerce. The most dramatic change lies along the horizontal axis, in a mass migration from individual breakthroughs to the creative insights of the group” (Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson, p228). These ideas can be applied to the concept of multiple discoveries as well. While things can be discovered by different people at similar times, combining these individual developments can create a better more complex idea. Relating back to Darwin and Wallace, they both developed their own theory of evolution, however, collaborated to solidify and express the idea of natural selection. Thus, including this idea from Johnson, is important when understanding the ways in which multiple discoveries can be used positively.
Sally Hughes, author of Genentech: The Beginnings of Biotech, discusses the way in which biotech startups prosper. In her book she gives many examples, both scientific and corporate, that suggest the ways in biotechnology companies become successful. One of the methods she touches upon is competition. She addresses this in her discussion of how Genentech, UCSF, and Harvard were all competing to make insulin. Initially, Harvard thought that they had beaten the other companies to it, but instead they made a precursor of insulin, rather, an inactive form. Due to this, Genentech was able to use this failure to their advantage as they successfully synthesized an active form of human insulin. Hughes states, “The immediate motivator, however, was the contest with the Gilbert and Rutter-Goodman teams” (Genentech by Sally Hughes, p91). As Goeddel puts it in this video, essentially competition was the driving force for the successful production of human insulin. This is just one example that Hughes touches upon, but it serves as a great comparison to issues dealing with multiple or simultaneous discoveries. Relating back to the example of Twort and d’Herelle, it was debated that competition and knowledge between both aided in the discovery of bacteriophages. d’Hellere made sure to publish his findings, which then fueled Twort’s suspicion of his work. This suspicion and competition for the better work helped tell the truth about bacteriophages and the way in which they work. Thus, ideas presented in Hughes’ book can be related to show the ways in which scientist produce the best work after multiple people have discovered the same thing. Thus, adding in Sally Hughes’ excerpt is important to the idea of multiple discoveries, because not only did the three biotech companies think they created the same thing but competition was the driving force to outbeat the other simultaneous discovery, very similar to what Twort and d’Herelle experienced.
Samantha Weinberg’s, Pointing From the Grave, informs readers of various scientific discoveries and elements that were vital during the Helena Greenwood murder case. One of the most important pieces of scientific information the book provided was the explanation of PCR in which she provides a description of how PCR is used to amplify DNA also described in this video of the mechanism in which it works. PCR can use very small or damaged samples of DNA and make them more easily accessible for scientists. The credit for PCR discovery goes to two scientists. Weinberg explains this simultaneous discovery throughout the course of her book.
Scientist, Kary Mullis, came up with what he believed to be the method to grow DNA. His plan was to “design a series of chemical reactions that would, in essence, highlight and then magnify a stretch of DNA until it could be easily read chemically” (Pointing from the Grave by Samantha Weinberg, p150). Mullis had a difficult time proving his tests to others as many doubted that he was accurate. At the same time, other scientists were trying to achieve the same end result as Mullis. Henry Erlich and his team were looking to make PCR in such a way that differed from Mullis’ approach, claiming that, “Kary was thinking about PCR as a way to produce DNA - but what I thought was, if you could amplify a gene in a genome where it is, say, one in a billion, then it could be used in an analytic way” (Weinberg, p154). Mullis claimed that Erlich was too eager in his process, rushing into the publication of his article before PCR was actually ready. Additionally, Mullis felt as if Elrich “stole” his process and took credit for it. Eventually, Erlich discovered a new polymerase - one that allowed for the PCR reaction to be performed at high temperatures, moving PCR on the map at last.
All in all, this instance of simultaneous discovery goes to show just how competitive scientific discovery can be. Most scientists want to be the first to say “I discovered this,” but often, doing so is not the easiest task. In this instance, it is important to understand the way in which multiple discoveries can aid in the scientific process. In this case competition between two similar discoveries allowed one to prosper.
When most people think of the lighting rod, they automatically associate it with Benjamin Franklin; however, Prokop Divis should not be forgotten for his invention of the lightening rod. According to Famous Scientists, Divis was the first one who invented the grounded lightning rod in the Czech Republic- the one that is still used in infrastructures today. Divis developed an interest in electricity 1740 and began attempting his own experiments. The lighting-caused death of fellow scientist, George Wilhelm Richmann, prompted his interest in atmospheric electricity. From here, Divis created what he referred to as the “weather-machine” - the first grounded lightning rod. Through research, he was able to conclude that lighting was a result of an electric spark. He also discovered that metallic points have the ability to attract and discharge.
It was not until 1754 when Benjamin Franklin discovered his lightning rod in the United States. There were differences between Divis’ and Franklin’s rods, the major one being that Divis’ was grounded and Franklin’s was not. As a result, Franklin’s did not work as well. This is why Divis is credited for inventing the first working lighting rod as depicted in the image below.
Image of Divis' lightening rod formation - Courtesy of Google Images
This exemplifies yet another simultaneous discovery, but between two scientists from different areas in the world. All while one scientist is working hard to be the first to invent something, someone else is out there working just as hard with the same intentions. This historical example is an important one to note because it allows readers to understand the significance of multiple discoveries. Although similar inventions are made, the time period and context play an important role in its success. Davis' European techniques may have allowed him to thrive.
Another discovery coined by two scientist working at the same time was the Black Hole Theory. Albert Einstein is better known for his research regarding this theory. Einstein’s first step towards this discovery involved creating an equation that summed up all of the math the theory called the relativity theory. One of Einstein’s astronomers, Karl Schwarzschild, was the first to study the theory. He began to wonder the solutions to such unknown equations that Einstein produced. Eventually, Schwarzschild published On the Field of Gravity of a Point Mass in the Theory of Einstein, which included his solutions to Einstein’s equations. In his publication, he explains how the escape velocity from the surface of an object depends on its mass and radius.
A few years later, John Archibald Wheeler, coined the term “Black Hole,” after studying Einstein’s theory of relativity, part of which included a new way to describe gravity. Wheeler explained that, “matter tells Space-Time how to curve, and Space-Time tells matter how to move.” He was able to come up with this name as a result of looking to Schwarzschild and as a result of Schwarzschild looking to Einstein.
Collaboration in science is key for discovery and success. Einstein’s primary ideas and small discoveries about black holes acted as the basis for Schwarzschild’s research and discoveries. From here, Schwarzschild work led to more research being conducted by Wheeler. Thus while a discovery can be found by many people, the collaboration that comes from it is a pertinent factor in allowing the field of science to progress. This example is important because it highlights the overarching theme of the positive effects of multiple discoveries.
Medicine also had its fair share of multiple discoveries as seen through the discovery of the polio vaccine during the twentieth century. In a Smithsonian Magazine article, Gilbert King describes the race to recognition for the polio vaccine. Both Albert Sabin and Jonas Salk could have claimed credit for this accomplishment as they both discovered a form of vaccination, and the debate over whose is better for mass vaccination is still relevant today. An incurable disease at the time, polio threatened the lives of many people. Some believed that poor sanitation led to exposure of the disease and assumed that the same measures taken to calm the spread of influenza or the plague would help in combating it. After many deaths, Salk and Sabin raced to find a cure.
On one side, Salk conducted a lot of research at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School towards developing a vaccine. His approach was to create a “killed virus” as opposed to a live vaccine - something that other scientists at the time were experimenting with. Salk tested his vaccine on animals, his family, and himself. His vaccine was deemed safe, effective, and successful at a press conference held at the University of Michigan. On the other hand, Sabin studied causes of the disease at New York University. He eventually came to the conclusion that polio lived in the small intestine and proposed that an oral vaccine would “block the virus from entering the bloodstream, destroying it before it spread” (Smithsonian Magazine). Sabin tested his vaccine on inmates deemed successful; however, authorities were worried that it could mutate into a dangerous virus since it was a live. Ultimately, the United States used Salk’s vaccine on Americans.
Even though both Sabin and Salk are credited for creating successful vaccines, deeming one as more successful came down to safety. All the while, both scientists worked tediously and worked against each other to end the disease. Again, this ties into the competition aspect of simultaneous discoveries: it is unavoidable yet beneficial to the progress of the field of science.
Perhaps the most famous equation, E=mc2 measures the amount of energy in a system. Albert Einstein is credited for the formulation of this equation, yet he was not the only scientist involved in the discovery. Another simultaneous discovery, the idea that energy can be calculated was a product of other scientific discoveries. For example, J.J. Thomson’s discovery of the electron helped to establish the fact that magnetic fields exist and play a huge role in energy production. Scientific Magazine explains how Thomson and Einstein were not the only scientists involved in these discoveries - infact, there were many whose work added to the discovery. For example, English physicist Oliver Heaviside created his own equation that explained the energy of a sphere’s electric field. John Henry Poynting created a theorem on the conservation of energy for the electromagnetic field. Fritz Hasenorhrl is recognized for finding that heat possess an equivalent mass, which was a major component of energy in system. Although Einstein was the first to propose that there was a relationship, he never proved it. Some question whether or not Einstein was aware of Hasenohrl’s work. The picture below includes the two scientists together at a conference in 1911, so one can conclude that Einstein knew of his existence, but to claim that he looked to Hasenorhl’s work for reference is uncertain. Once again, this all goes to prove the idea that scientific discoveries often include many people, many brains, and many ideas before one person takes the majority of the credit.
1911 Conference Einstein and Hasenorhl - Image courtesy of BBC
In Horatio Newman’s Readings in Evolution, Genetics, and Eugenics published in 1921, Newman describes Hugo De Vries’ discovery of “mutants”. Hugo was looking for wild plant species that might exhibit “saltatory variation”, and saw it in the evening primrose, a “large, stately plant with conspicuous yellow blooms [that] had escaped from cultivation and was growing wild in the fields” (Readings in Evolution, Genetics, and Eugenics by Horatio Newman, p37). In the wild, he saw significant differences in the species, but when planted in a garden, they bred as expected. To test this theory, “seeds of several typical plants were planted in the garden; the result being not only a repetition of the peculiar types observed in the field, but of about a dozen other true breeding types with well-marked differences from the parent species and among themselves… these new types De Vries considered as new elementary species and he called them ‘mutants’” (Newman, p37). But Newman acknowledges that two scientists are associated with mutations: “The theory of ‘mutations’ is associated with the name of Hugo De Vries, the well-known Dutch botanist; that of ‘heterogenesis’ with the name of H. Korchinsky” (Newman, p36). According to Newman, even though there is a parallel between the two conclusions made, and even though Korchinsky preceded De Vries by a few years, his work did not have much support from experimental data, and so was not accepted. De Vries however, held back his theory until he had collected enough facts to support his idea. This example goes to show that while two similar theories were created, it depends on the context behind the work that makes a discovery successful. Due to the lack of experimental data by Korchinsky, he was unable to publicize his theory. Overall, while multiples can collaborate, sometimes the context behind a discovery is different for two scientists.
De Vrie examining his Evening Primrose - Image courtesy of the DNA learning Center
In the scientific world today, the importance of carbon is often discussed; however, what is not as commonly talked about is the idea of single-walled carbon nanotubes. According to an article in Carbon, in the early 90s, carbon nanotubes “suddenly supplanted fullerenes as the hottest research topic of the Twentieth Century”. Single walled carbon nanotubes were however, first reported in a NATURE issue by two papers independently submitted by two groups of scientists in 1993: S. Iijima and Ichihashi from NEC in Japan, and D. Bethune et al. from IBM in California. The two groups of scientists remarkably submitted their papers only a month apart. But the closeness of these discoveries naturally leads one to question: Were the two discoveries connected? The answer is yes and no. No, because these two discoveries although almost simultaneous, were independent of each other. But according to an article in Scitizen by Dr. Wolfgang S. Bacsa states, “only later discoveries by Iijima led to the spate of activity in this field resulting in significant breakthrough in structure-property correlations”. Iijima’s work with the carbon molecule C60 led to an unexpected discovery of a method that could be related to microtubules. Essentially, while the two groups of scientists’ work was not directly related, discoveries made earlier by Iijima allowed for the field to advance, allowing for methods that caused other scientists to independently discover nanotubes. Basca seems to be under the impression that even though Iijima made key contributions to the field and the discovery of nanotubes, he was not the first to report about nanotubes. Overall, this example is pertinent to the idea of multiples because it enables readers to understand how multiples discoveries allow the field of science to advance. Essentially, while two scientists independently came to understand nanotubes, the connection between the experiments allowed new methods that yielded more complex findings in the same line of work.
S. Iijima - Image courtesy of International Balzan Prize Foundation
In 1975, Dr. Howard Temin, Dr. David Baltimore, and Dr. Renato Dulbecco shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for their independent work with reverse transcriptases. In the 1950s, Dr. Dulbecco had clarified the way by which tumors change from normal to cancerous: viral DNA combines with cellular DNA in the nucleus, and when the cell divides the traits from the viral cell are passed down to daughter cells. Ten years later, Dr. Termin suggested that RNA tumor viruses, might also be capable of infiltrating healthy cells and creating a DNA copy of itself. In 1970, both Dr. Temin and Dr. Baltimore independently found proof of this theory in different methods. Dr. Temin saw it in avian myoblastosis viruses, while Baltimore saw it while working with the Rauscher murine leukemia virus and the Rous sarcoma virus. In his award description Dr. Baltimore’s method is outlined: “Dr. Baltimore rendered the virus membranes permeable, allowing him to inject deoxynucleotides into the particles, to act as a kind of lure...When he detected the synthesis of DNA following the template of the virus's RNA genome, Dr. Baltimore effectively proved the theory of reverse transcription”. The viral polymerase, or reverse transcriptase, transcribes single stranded RNA into single stranded DNA. Although Temin and Baltimore both independently understood reverse transcription, both of their work depended on earlier discoveries in the field. Without Dulbecco’s certification that viruses took over cells with their own DNA, it is possible that Temin and Baltimore would not have decided, been inspired, or been able to research what they did. Therefore, this is yet another historical example of the way in which multiples relates to collaboration among scientists, yielding a positive outcome for the field of science. While both Temin and Baltimore had their own independent discovery the timeframe and context in which they were working allowed them to collaborate for ultimate success. Thus when understanding multiple discoveries it is key to understand that the same idea can occur but timing and context that is shared allows for prosperity.
Ever since scientists had demonstrated that battery current produced a magnetic effect, scientists tried to prove the opposite: that electricity could be produced from a magnet. In November of 1831 in England, Michael Faraday discovered the “generation of an electric current (electricity in motion) in a wire as well as by the wire either being in the presence of a changing magnetic force or moving through a region of magnetic force”. Faraday did this in a very complex procedure described below.
Faraday’s Experiment in his own words- Image courtesy of The Search for Electromagnetic Induction
Ultimately, Faraday used a magnet and a coil and connected a galvanometer (used for measuring current) across the coil, and when the magnet moved towards the coil, the needle of the galvanometer deflected. When the magnet was held still, the needle went back to middle position, and when the magnet was moved away from the coil, the needle deflected in the opposite direction. Faraday concluded that when there is motion between a conductor and magnetic field, the flux changes in the coil and induces a voltage across the coil. This came to be called electromagnetic induction. In August of 1831 in the United States, Joseph Henry who was also working in electromagnetism, began his attempt at producing electricity from magnetism. But because of delays in his school year, he did not actually do the experiment until June of the next year. Even though both Faraday and Henry are independently credited with the discovery of induction, Faraday is credited with being the first to achieve the effect. However, the two men’s independent work were more connected than might be visibly apparent. Henry’s biographer Albert Moyer insists that Faraday was initially inspired to look for electromagnetic induction after reading about Henry’s work with electromagnets and even got his idea from Henry’s work with multiple coils. Again this historical example offers insight on the way in which multiple discoveries happen. In this case the time frame and context in which Henry was working allowed Faraday to come up with something similar. Thus, multiple discoveries can occur in a variety of ways and timeframe and context is very important.
In Steven Johnson’s book, Where Good Ideas Come From, he suggests the theory of “the multiple” (Johnson, p34) particularly intriguing. As Johnson puts it, “a brilliant idea occurs to a scientist or inventor somewhere in the world, and he goes public with his remarkable finding, only to discover that three other minds had independently come up with the same idea in the past year” (Johnson, p34). Student author Amaofo suggests some possible problems and implications with this: “I've never given much thought to what would happen if multiple people discovered the same thing, at the same time. Many questions arose from this piece of trivia. Who receives the credit? Why is it that they all happened to discover it around the same time? Did some event happen to influence their research? Did they gather their information from the same sources?” These are very interesting questions that I am sure even the scientists themselves might have wondered. Johnson documents several occurrences of these multiple discoveries: the first battery invented separately by Dean Von Kleist and Cuneus in 1745 and 1746, the law of conservation of energy was formulated four separate times in the 1840s, the impact of x-rays on mutation was independently discovered by two scientists in 1927, and the list goes on. In their study “Are Inventions Inevitable”, Columbia University scholars William Ogburn and Dorothy Thomas found 148 instances of independent multiple innovations, most within the same decade.
Screen shot of "Are Inventions Inevitable" Article - Courtesy of JStor
For Johnson, multiples can be seen in almost every important technological invention ever. He suggests a reason for this: “Good ideas are not conjured out of thin air; they are built out of a collection of existing parts, the composition of which expands over time” (Johnson, p35). For the discovery the isolation of oxygen, the discovery was “ ‘in the air’, but only because a specific set of prior discoveries and inventions had made that experiment thinkable” (Johnson 35), a theme which can be seen in almost all of the previous examples of multiples documented in this anthology.
Overall, in science, there are many ways in which discoveries come about. Whether it be through slow hunches that are acted upon or happy accidents, discoveries occur in many ways. What is notably important is the way in which multiple discoveries occur. As seen in this anthology, the same discovery can occur based on the workings of many different scientists. For instance, Darwin and Wallace came up with the same theory of evolution, Priestley and Lavoisier both discovered oxygen. Additionally, readings throughout the semester pointed to ideas similar to these. Insulin was created by multiple biotechnology companies. What makes both of these things interesting is the way in which they were discovered, the time frame, and the context. When understanding why two similar discoveries were made by two different people an important consideration is the time and way they were discovered. Furthermore, there many ways in which multiples discoveries can be used. As Johnson portrays it, the networking and connection of two similar individual developments can facilitate even more complex and better ideas. Overall, it is important to understand that while there can be similar discoveries,it is not necessarily a bad thing, rather, it is the partnership of those similar discoveries that contribute to the success of the field of science. Therefore, this anthology aims to make readers aware of the many simultaneous discoveries out there but also to look at the bigger picture of why and how multiple discoveries are so important - collaboration, competition, timeframe and context drive complexity and progress for the world of science.