We tend to have a slightly romanticized idea of how scientists work. In our mind's eye, we have a picture of an individual, perhaps stroking his beard thoughtfully as apples rain down on him, suddenly leaping to his feet and shouting "Eureka!" Then, after a bit of quick work with some graph paper, BAM, the world has indoor plumbing.
Cracked, as always, salutes you, Sir Thomas Crapper.
But that's not necessarily how invention works. Aside from the fact that these scientists and inventors often work in teams, even those teams don't exist in a vacuum. They read the scientific literature, and attend conferences, and exchange correspondence with their peers, and in general absorb the thoughts and ideas of their day, thoughts and ideas that are accessible to everyone else. Indeed, it turns out that many of the biggest inventions and discoveries of all time haven't been made by a single person, but by many people, working more or less independently, in some cases barely finishing their research before they make comical sprints to the patent office, trousers hanging around their ankles.
Cracked also salutes this probably apocryphal story of Sir Thomas Crapper's pratfall-laden sprint to the patent office.
Here then are some of the most famous discoveries of all time and their equally famous discoverers, and also the sad people in the shadows who discovered the same things seconds too late.
Depending on your level of education, you'll recognize calculus either as the study of limits, infinitesimals, and rates of change or as a spooky, possibly magical practice performed by people with thicker glasses and thinner arms than you.
"Hey Poindexter. Calculate the area under your mom when she's crab walking at me."
Making the probably safe assumption that most of you fall into the latter category, I'll just summarize it here: Calculus is important, and it forms the bedrock for the study of physics, engineering, economics, and essentially every other damned thing we use each day.
Including your mom.
The invention of calculus is now widely credited to both Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz. Newton almost certainly came upon the idea first around 1666, but he didn't tell anyone about it, because he was kind of a wierdo. Leibniz, starting in about 1673, came by the discovery himself from a slightly different angle, also developing a much better method of notation that we still use today. Leibniz then formally published his results in advance of Newton, although Newton's papers had been circulating informally for some time. Whether Leibniz saw these papers or not would cause no small amount of hair-pulling among the wider world of math groupies.
Seriously, this was really important to a lot of overly thin dudes.
You see, having the inventor of calculus hang out in the same social clubs as you was really important to these guys, and for years afterward these math groupies nearly came to blows over whose champion invented calculus first. It wasn't until decades later that everyone calmed down enough to acknowledge that they both basically invented it independently.
There's a larger point in all this, though, which will reappear in the examples to come. Although both men were certainly geniuses, this was a problem that was probably going to get solved soon anyways. Their work was based on the work of others, widely circulated among the thinkers of the day. If for some reason Newton and Leibniz had ignored math and devoted all their time and energies to wig maintenance ...
Well. More time.
... someone else would have probably put together calculus within a few years.
4Theory of Evolution
Evolution, the process by which species change over multiple generations, is one of the cornerstones of our understanding of biology and the natural world. (Unless you don't think that, in which case it's magic.) And as every schoolchild knows, evolution was discovered by Charles Darwin after he traveled the world and found that one island full of monkeys capable of wearing human clothes.
Darwin: "Thank you, Chuckles. When they remember me, I shall be remembering you."
Darwin wasn't quite the first to speculate that species could change over time; that idea had already been floating around among scientists for awhile. But even then it was considered a little radical, and no one could quite figure out how it worked. Even Darwin would take a couple decades after his great voyage to finally formulate the key mechanism that we now call natural selection. But finally he figured it out, and he was about to step into history when some asshole sent him an essay explaining the whole thing.
Alfred Russel Wallace, pictured here snaking his place in history.
That asshole was Alfred Russel Wallace, and I use the term in jest, because in reality he appears to be one of the nicest guys in the history of science. He only sent his theory to Darwin because he loved the guy so much and would allow his theory to be presented jointly with some of Darwin's notes. A few months later, when Darwin's landmark The Origin of Species was published, Wallace didn't seek any of the limelight.
Patche99z via Wikimedia Commons