Sunday, March 04, 2012

Are We Witnessing the Repeal of Stigler's Law?

For those of you who turned in late, there's a nasty (or maybe "comical") scuffle going on over at the Washington Post on the question of who invented Email.  Evidently the Post back on February 17 published a story with the headline:

V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai: Inventor of e-mail honored by Smithsonian

Apparently about the time the reporter hit the "send" key the Post got hit by a whole spitstorm of, well, e-mail, from techies who undertook to, shall we say, refine the point.  There followed a back and forth with the Post's ombudsman, ending (for the moment) with a shame-faced  apology from the obudsman which has perhaps momentarily quieted the hordes (or maybe not).

Of course I'm not remotely qualified to wade into the substance of the dispute.  Apparently this Ayyudurai person does hold a copyright (sic) on the use of the word "email" in connection with some code he wrote back in 1982, and evidently there is, or was, some kind of Smithsonian recognition.    The original Post story does look pretty wide-eyed but that's hindsight.  What interests me is a meta-issue--specifically, the question whether we are watching the slow-motion (strike that, quick-time) disintegration of "Stigler's Law of Eponymy."

You know Stigler's Law--in Wiki form, "No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer."  Stigler liked to say that he called it  Stigler's law because he didn't invent it.  And flippancy aside, he is making a larger point about the paths of inquiry and the methods of discovery. He's also zeroing in on the romantic notion of the inventor: the idea of the isolated hero, alone in his lab at 3 am (or perhaps in congress with the deviil) whose "aha!" moment sets the world on its ear. 

It's a seductive notion with a long pedigree. Of course we know now that it doesn't work that way--probably never did and certainly does not in an age of lightning communication and galaxy-wide competitive cooperation.   Abner Doubleday did not invent baseball and Marconi did not invent radio.   And Watson and Crick probably copped a bit more credit than they deserved for DNA.  So poor Ayyaddurai, who seems to have been a willing participant in, perhaps the protagonist of, this little drama, just came along too late: people aren't going to let him get away with a ploy that might well have worked in ages past.  Generalizing, the point would be  that people just aren't going to get credit (that they don't really deserve, anyway) just for catching a particular moment in  collaborative process.  I could call this Buce's law but that would be admitting that somebody had already thought of it.   

1 comment:

CrocodileChuck said...


"Watson and Crick probably copped a bit more credit than they deserved for DNA"

Actually, no. In fact, both set out to discover THE chemical problem of the 20th C, despite the fact that neither knew much at all about the subject! Whereas Wilkins was frittering away around the edges, and Rosalind Franklin was busy perfecting her X ray crystallography technique. Watson and Crick were on the make, and availed themselves of every method they knew of, eg using Pauling's tinkertoy 3-D models. The stunning bit about their discovery: everyone who gazed upon the model GOT IT-there was no quibbling, let alone push-back.

Not bad for an 23 yr old ornithologist and a 35 year old physicist writing his thesis!