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affecting science, medicine and the environment | MIND

Assigning Credit for Discoveries Can Be Messy

March 29, 2001|K.C. COLE

Like real life, science is inherently messy. Equipment shatters; experiments fail; results are ambiguous; data get dirty; equations defy solution, and causes are too complex to untangle.

But science is also messy because it's done by humans--among the messiest characters in the cosmos. Humans carry about on their shoulders not only big, rational brains, but also fragile egos; their hearts crave recognition, pine for fame.

"The product of science is knowledge," says the character of French 18th century chemist Antoine Lavoisier in the new play "Oxygen," opening April 2 in San Diego. "But the product of scientists is reputation."

So it's not a trivial matter when the credit for a discovery goes to the wrong person.

You'd think, perhaps, that giving credit where credit is due would be a simple matter. But it rarely is.

What if you stumble across a precious fossil, for example, but mistake it for a scratched-up rock? What if you know it's a fossil, but fail to publish?

Or what if you figure out that there should be a treasure trove of precious fossils in your neighbor's backyard, but don't have the means to get at it?

A classic real-life example is the discovery of the cosmic microwave background--the afterglow of the Big Bang that still pervades space. The scientists who took home the Nobel prize for this discovery had no idea what they'd found. They had picked up some stray noise in their radio antenna. For a while, they thought it was pigeon droppings.

Meanwhile, another group of astronomers had figured out that the Big Bang should have left behind fingerprints in the form of just such radiation. When they heard of the annoying "noise" raining down on the first group's radio antenna, they knew exactly what it was.

But in the end--to many scientists' consternation--the ones who stumbled upon it blindly got the prize.

"Oxygen" concerns one of the most curious controversies over credit in the history of science. In 1771 the Swedish apothecary Carl Wilhelm Scheele cooked up what he sometimes called "fire air" but never managed to publish his results. In 1774, the English minister Joseph Priestley created the same "vital air" and published his results within the same year.

Both Scheele and Priestley believed--as did most people at the time--that when things burned, a substance known as "phlogiston" was liberated. The gas that Scheele and Priestley created, they believed, was air sucked dry of phlogiston--or "dephlogisticated air."

It took the French tax collector Lavoisier to see that Scheele and Priestley had it backward: Things burn when something is taken from the air--and that something is oxygen.

So while Scheele probably was the first to make oxygen, and Priestley the first to publish, Lavoisier was the first to understand what they had made.

Of course, there's more to it than that. There's the question of ethics, for example. Did Lavoisier steal his method of making oxygen from a letter Scheele wrote him? From information squeezed out of Priestley over dinner in Paris?

Where science is concerned, do morals matter? Is a Nobel prize that goes to someone of questionable character somehow less noble?

These matters pertain outside the realm of science: Columbus may have "discovered" North America for the Europeans, for example, but his behavior was morally questionable. Besides, the Vikings probably got here first--only to find people already living here. And of course, Columbus didn't know where he was going or recognize what he found when he got there.

Not coincidently, the two authors of "Oxygen" are both winners of the Priestley prize for chemistry. One, Roald Hoffmann, is also a Nobel laureate. (The other is Carl Djerassi.) So, they know whereof they speak:

When it comes to winning prizes, self-promotion matters. So does whom you know. This is one reason why so many women scientists have not received the Nobel prizes they almost certainly deserved (among them, Rosalind Franklin for DNA, Lisa Meitner for nuclear fission and Jocelyn Bell for pulsars).

And lest you think this is only ancient history, some juicy cases of credit are coming up just around the corner. Who, for example, will get the Nobel for the discovery of the Higgs boson when and if it appears?

The physicists at the European laboratory who had it within arm's reach last year? The physicists at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory near Chicago who may come a little closer to pinning it down? And just who of the hundreds of experimentalists and theorists involved should be honored?

Stay tuned.

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