Monday, September 03, 2007

Examples of the Zeroth Theorem of the History of Physics

This is just a fun paper to read, even if it is only for historical context. J.D. Jackson (he of the dreaded "Classical Electrodynamics" graduate level text author) has written a rather engaging essay on the assignment of "names" to various discovery/invention in physics. He calls it the Zeroth Theorem of the History of Physics. And I think there's often quite a bit of truth in it based on my own observation.

The zeroth theorem has some similarities to the "Matthew effect" The Matthew effect describes how a more prominent researcher will reap all the credit even if a lesser known person has done essentially the same work contemporaneously, or how the most senior researcher in a group effort will get all the recognition, even though all the real work was done by graduate students or postdocs. The zeroth theorem might be considered as the first kind of Matthew effect , but with some time delay, although some examples do not fit the prominent/lesser constrain. Neither do my examples reflect, as far as I know, the possible influence by the senior researcher or friends to discount or ignore the contributions of others. The zeroth theorem stands on its own, examples often arising because the first enunciator was before his/her time or because the community was not diligent in searching the prior literature before attaching a name to the discovery or relation or effect.

You'll get to know all the participants that may not get the recognition that they deserve in some of the well-known formulations that we currently use.


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