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The idea of a super-scientist who invents things that no contemporary is able to equal because he's just that smart is a common trope in works of fiction, especially of the sci-fi or superhero variety. I know that there is at least one precedent, a brilliant mind who was demonstrably several decades ahead of his time: James Maxwell. Analysis of his work shows that, if he had not tragically died young, (of cancer,) he was on a course that would have almost certainly led him directly to the Theory of Relativity, almost half a century before Einstein. It was decades before anyone managed to catch up to Maxwell, and the guy who accomplished it was so brilliant that his name has entered the modern lexicon as essentially synonymous with "genius".

The thing is, Maxwell is the only example I'm familiar with of such a super-scientist in real life. Do we have any examples of this being in any way a common thing, of a single person figuring out something that none of his contemporaries were able to duplicate until significantly later?

Note: Three people who might quickly come to mind but are not valid examples are Nikola Tesla, (who has had many amazing inventions apocryphally attributed to him but somehow no one else has ever demonstrated that they actually worked, and the things he came up with that did actually work, his contemporaries were able to duplicate,) Leonardo da Vinci (who came up with some very interesting designs for a flying machine, but it was nothing at all like any successful heavier-than-air flying machine that's actually been built since the Wright Brothers first figured out how to make it work,) and Charles Babbage (who came up with the idea of a computing machine, but failed to build a working model mostly due to the poor quality of materials science in his day. The limiting factor here was not intelligence and comprehension, but the inability to obtain the necessary mechanical precision.) To be a valid example, their work has to be independently proven valid at a much later date.

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    So, by your definition, a scientist who is able to clearly explain and communicate his theories and inventions to his contemporaries (and therefore allow them to reproduce his work) cannot be a "super-scientist", no matter how original his thoughts and ideas? – Steve Bird Jul 23 '15 at 19:41
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    This seems strongly a matter of opinion. The example of Maxwell, for instance, seems extremely disputable - what analysis are you referring to here? Is there any source you can cite? I'm also not sure I would agree with the implied view of scientific progress here regarding breakthroughs. – Semaphore Jul 23 '15 at 19:42
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    Since there is no way to objectively classify whether someone fits this definition or not, I have to vote to close as opinion based. – Mark C. Wallace Jul 23 '15 at 19:43
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    Better suited to the history of science stack exchange, no? – Samuel Russell Jul 23 '15 at 22:28
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    @Gwenn. The OP may have been inspired by fiction to ask the question but his definition of what makes a "super-scientist" is his own and he is asking for real-world examples that fit his definition. I see that definition as flawed as it excludes scientists with the skill to clearly communicate their ideas to their peers. – Steve Bird Jul 29 '15 at 5:37
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Srinivasa Ramanujan is a good candidate, based on your criterion of "their work has to be independently proven valid at a much later date." Ramanujan often chose not to prove his nearly 3,900 results, many of which were unconventional for the time. In the decades after his death in 1920, mathematicians would prove him correct again and again and again. Some results were incorrect, but Ramanujan's record is still remarkable.

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Probably the best illustration of this particular concept is Friar Gregor Mendel.

Around 1900 biologists Hugo de Vries and Carl Correns were performing experiments trying to suss out the nature of inheritance, and found they had repeatable results they could not explain, and that did not fit in at all with the prevailing theories. Knowing they'd be torn a new one by supporters of those theories if they just released their results raw, they went looking for prior research showing similar results.

What they discovered was that this Moravian Augustinian Friar had not only produced the same results in experiments with peas 40 years earlier, but he'd come up with a workable consistent pair of theories that explained the results. In the intervening 40 years (during which he passed away) his work had been cited all of 3 times, but otherwise essentially forgotten. His two theories we now call Mendel's Laws of Inheritance, and Mendel himself is now considered the father of modern genetics.

As for the general case, I'd argue that this kind of person probably exists in every society and age, but for it to be a true advance you generally have to look to societies advanced enough to give the person a good starting base, and its probably a far more typical result for a Mendel's work to never be rediscovered later. So having the rare such genius, and the good fortune to not lose their work, is a total stroke of luck when it happens.

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    As an example of loss, there was this dirt poor half-educated kid in Africa around the year 2000 who managed to build his family, and then his village, a working electricity-generating windmill from some pictures he saw in library books and his own tinkering-based knowledge of electronics. That's a huge advance for his village where he's (probably quite rightly) seen as a genius. But what could this kid have been capable of if he'd had the education and resources of a first world country? And how many others do we lose to poverty? – T.E.D. Jul 23 '15 at 20:18
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    We probably lose a lot to playing video games rather than doing anything practical, too. – Oldcat Jul 23 '15 at 21:54
  • @Oldcat - Touche. – T.E.D. Jul 24 '15 at 0:01
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    @Oldcat playing video games is quite useful for many reasons, actually. Playing too much might be a problem, but… doing anything too much is a problem anyway. – o0'. Jul 28 '15 at 10:33
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    @PieterGeerkens That is not generally accepted in the scientific community, and considering the inflammatory nature of the charge, you really shouldn't throw it up like its some kind of known fact. Either way, its an argument about data, whereas I'm talking about the theories. – T.E.D. Jul 29 '15 at 14:41
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Enest Duchesne wasn't a scientist, and he made only a single discovery that went unnoticed for decades due to snobbish attitudes of French academia of the times, so I'm not sure whether he fits your criteria. Briefly, Duchesne discovered penicillin 32 years before Fleming, and used it to cure a case of typhoid. Unfortunately, he was deemed too young and unknown for anybody to pay any attention to his report.

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Another good candidate is Reverend Thomas Bayes, who first correctly formulated how to use probability theory inductively, using what is now called Bayes' Theorem. The importance of this discovery was not fully understood until long after his death in 1761.

Bayes never published his discovery during his lifetime, but two years after his death his friend Richard Price found it in his notes in 1763 and published it as "An Essay towards solving a Problem in the Doctrine of Chances", which went almost entirely unheralded.

Bayes' Theorem was independently discovered a few years later in 1774 by the mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace, who later learned of Thomas Bayes' earlier discovery in 1781.

After Laplace's death, Bayesian reasoning almost entirely disappeared from academic circles for over 100 years (though it still saw some infrequent use in industry and the military), until Harold Jeffreys published Theory of Probability in 1939.

Alan Turing was familiar with this work, and used Bayesian probability theory as part of the effort to decode Enigma codes during World War II. This, of course, was not public knowledge until many years later, since the British government tried to keep their code-breaking efforts secret.

Finally, in the 1950s, with the help of Alan Turing's former assistant I. J. Good and a few other characters, the power of Bayesian probability theory became widely recognized.


TL;DR:

Bayes' Theorem was discover by Thomas Bayes during his lifetime, but wasn't published until two years after his death in 1763. Except for a brief period of use by the mathematician Laplace, his work went largely unheeded until after World War II. It is now one of the two major interpretations of statistical reasoning.


The history of Bayes' Theorem is long and fascinating. An longer and better history of Bayes' Theorem can be found here.

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Despite what you noted in your question, I would still argue that Leonardo Da Vinci meets the conditions you state for a scientist "ahead of his time."

He made a number of inventions during his life, including the parachute, functional scuba gear, and a primitive tank/armored car.

As for his flying machine designs, ornithopters very much like what Da Vinci designed are a real modern heavier-than-air flight technology. It is true that ornithopters are not the dominant mode of human flight today, so they are not very widely known, but they do work. The first successful manned ornithopter flight took place in 1942, and the first successful human-powered ornithopter flight took place in 2010.

While Da Vinci did not invent the idea of an ornithopter, he was the first to recognize that humans were not strong or agile enough to fly by simply strapping wings onto their arms. He was also the first to put serious effort into trying to overcome this problem. It should also be noted that his ornithopter design is a perfectly functional glider. While I am not aware of any tests, with a few minor modifications, it should be able to fly unmanned using a modern engine.

  • One of the reasons that Da Vinci was 'ahead' of his peers is because he intentionally obfuscated his methods and results to prevent them from following or duplicating his ideas. So how can we judge whether his contemporaries were capable of understanding his work when Da Vinci didn't share it? – Steve Bird Jul 29 '15 at 6:30
  • @SteveBird: So you're saying the real problem is that his peers couldn't crack the Da Vinci Code? ;) – Mason Wheeler Jul 29 '15 at 9:20

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