I’m shamelessly stealing this question from James Nicoll, who asked it about science fiction. The question is a play on the famous comment that only of order a thousand people bought the first Velvet Underground record, but every one of them went on to start a band.

So, the question is, who is the Velvet Underground of science? That is, who is the best example of somebody whose work was only read by a tiny number of people, but ended up being incredibly influential on those people and subsequent generations?

The physics example that comes to mind immediately is Sadi Carnot. Carnot wrote a little book about heat in the 1820’s that basically nobody read until after his death. It turned out to lay the foundations for essentially all of thermodynamics, though, and was tremendously influential in the future development of the physics of heat, entropy, and all the rest.

That’s just a quick reaction, though, and there may be someone better. And, of course, there are all those other branches of science that probably have their own obscure but influential historical figures. Which is why we have blog comments, after all, so leave your own nomination there.

Comments

  1. #1 6EQUJ5
    October 7, 2010

    Harrumph. I bought the VU&N album, with the banana sticker, and I couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket.

    Did Fourier read Carnot? His investigation into heat led him into interesting directions.

  2. #2 Eric Lund
    October 7, 2010

    @1: Fourier’s work on heat conduction was roughly contemporary to Carnot’s work, according to Wikipedia. Fourier, however, did not come up with the atmospheric greenhouse concept; the attribution to him was based on Arrhenius’s misinterpretation of his work on the subject.

    Two other good candidates from the physics/astronomy world:

    -Copernicus. His heliocentric model was published posthumously, and even then the work was so obscure that the Church felt they could ignore it. Yet he, not Galileo or Kepler who did the work to establish it, nor the faction of ancient Greeks who had similar ideas, gets the credit for establishing the idea.

    -Kristian Birkeland. His ideas regarding the physics of the aurora were largely ignored at the time, but the few who took those ideas seriously eventually showed that the basic framework was correct.

  3. #3 joanna
    October 7, 2010

    What about Gibbs? He published only in obscure journals…

  4. #4 Larry Moran
    October 7, 2010

    Max Delbrück in molecular biology.

  5. #5 John Hawks
    October 7, 2010

    Is Leo Szilard too famous? He’s my favorite example of someone who was hugely important to science (not only physics, but also information theory and biology), but of whom ordinary people are really unlikely to have ever heard.

  6. #6 t_p_hamilton
    October 7, 2010

    S. F. Boys in quantum chemistry

  7. #7 Rich
    October 7, 2010

    Emmy Noether.

  8. #8 kris
    October 7, 2010

    ECG Stuckelberg, though he is probably an example of someone who was ignored but whose work was independently rediscovered and won the rediscoverers nobel prizes (QED, Yukawa for eg.).

  9. #9 Danil
    October 7, 2010

    Oh, good call Rich.

  10. #10 Janne
    October 7, 2010

    Would Gregor Mendel qualify?

  11. #11 Thony C.
    October 8, 2010

    As somebody who lives in Erlangen, Emmy’s home town, and studied maths in the same university maths department, also Erlangen, I’m really pleased by your nomination Rich!

  12. #12 Anna B
    October 8, 2010

    I second Copernicus.

  13. #13 Steven Colyer
    October 8, 2010

    Archimedes, Socrates, Euclid, and Evariste Galois

  14. #14 andre3
    October 8, 2010

    In chemistry I’m going to say Henry Taube. Yes, he won a Nobel Prize (solo in 1983) but you almost never hear of him in any inorganic class, even in graduate school, except maybe the Creutz-Taube ion.

    The man was essential in describing electron transfer reactions and much of modern coordination chemistry is built on a foundation of his work. Plus he produced some damn fine chemists from his lab.

  15. #15 Ian Kemmish
    October 8, 2010

    Trivially, almost anyone from the millenium or so prior to the point where literacy and education started to be widespread. Their works were obviously only read by small numbers of people; conversely, most of what we teach today was written by those who came after them. As a mathematician, I’d probably choose Leonardo of Pisa.

  16. #16 Steven Colyer
    October 8, 2010

    Hi Ian,

    You wrote:
    Trivially, almost anyone from the millennium or so prior to the point where literacy and education started to be widespread.

    And which millennium would that be? I’m sure you don’t mean the one following the Sumerians of Mesopotamia, who invented writing and thus gave us the dawn of “History,” based on what you later wrote.

    Gutenberg and the invention of the printing press? Probably not that either, as we’re currently still deeply embedded in THAT millennium, yes? If so, then I’ve at least bracketed what you mean, I think. Do tell. Interesting point.

  17. #17 Vicki
    October 8, 2010

    Not Euclid: he was not only read/studied by a lot of the people who studied math in his time, his book was used as a textbook for a couple of thousand years (largely in translation, of course).

  18. #18 dfphil
    October 8, 2010

    While I wouldn’t want to argue against Noether, I was trying to think of an experimental physicist to throw into the hat. One name that comes to mind is Georges Charpak. While he did eventually win the Nobel prize, he influenced several generations of people doing experiments in particle physics (some of whom won Nobel prizes) before receiving recognition himself. Of course, by those criteria, I might as well name Norman Ramsey who is not a household name but has had deep, deep impact both in training generations of physicists and on everyday technology (from NMR to GPS and probably varieties of other things not coming to mind right now).

  19. #19 HI
    October 8, 2010

    #8
    I was thinking about E. C. G. Stuckelberg, too, not that I really understand his work.

    How about Oswald Avery. He found that DNA carries genetic information. But he didn’t win a Nobel Prize.

  20. #20 Curious Wavefunction
    October 8, 2010

    I think there’s two kinds of Velvet Undergrounds, ones whose achievements were recognized by their peers when they were alive but which did not make their names publicly known, and others whose achievements did not even become known to their peers until after they died.

    In the first category:
    Bruno Zimm for crystallography
    Norman Heatley for penicillin
    Stanislaw Ulam for math
    Carl Woese for microbiology
    Robert Wilson for physics

    In the second category:
    Josiah Willard Gibbs for thermodynamics
    Gregor Mendel for genetics
    Ludwig Boltzmann (partially)
    George Price for evolutionary biology
    Charles Coulson for quantum chemistry
    Hugh Everett for quantum theory

  21. #21 Thony C.
    October 8, 2010

    I think several people have not understood the principles of this thing. Copernicus, Archimedes, Euclid and Socrates are all much too much household names to ever qualify as a Velevet Underground!

  22. #22 Steven Colyer
    October 8, 2010

    Hi, Thony C,

    You wrote:
    I think several people have not understood the principles of this thing. Copernicus, Archimedes, Euclid and Socrates are all much too much household names to ever qualify as a Velvet Underground!

    With all due respect, ToDAY they are household names, but in their times?!

    – Copernicus was a very religious man, or at least gave Religion its due, meaning he didn’t rock the boat so to speak. He published, but only after his death. That way, he saved his bacon from criticism. Had he had more balls and published during his his lifetime, then he and not Professor Galileo Galilei of Pisa would be known as “The Father of Modern Physics”, but he didn’t so he’s not. Thank goodness Professor Galileo was paying attention.

    – Archimedes – from Wiki: Archimedes of Syracuse (Greek: Ἀρχιμήδης; c. 287 BC – c. 212 BC) was a Greek mathematician, physicist, engineer, inventor, and astronomer. Although few details of his life are known, he is regarded as one of the leading scientists in classical antiquity. Among his advances in physics are the foundations of hydrostatics, statics and an explanation of the principle of the lever. He is credited with designing innovative machines, including siege engines and the screw pump that bears his name. Modern experiments have tested claims that Archimedes designed machines capable of lifting attacking ships out of the water and setting ships on fire using an array of mirrors.

    Archimedes is generally considered to be the greatest mathematician of antiquity and one of the greatest of all time. He used the method of exhaustion to calculate the area under the arc of a parabola with the summation of an infinite series, and gave a remarkably accurate approximation of pi.[4] He also defined the spiral bearing his name, formulae for the volumes of surfaces of revolution and an ingenious system for expressing very large numbers.

    I really don’t think I have to add any to that.

    Socrates I refuse to comment on. If you don’t know how Socrates changed our ENTIRE culture, you have much to learn.

    Euclid? I’m sure Geometry existed before Euclid (think: Ancient Egyptians and The Great Pyramids), but Euclid’s greatness is that he CODIFIED it. In prose, sure, but WHOM do you think the Arabs based their Al-Jabr, i.e., Algebra on, when they invented that, hmm?

    Also, you can’t get mad at me because I did start this reply off with “With all due respect.” :-)

  23. #23 Nigel
    October 8, 2010

    Yes, Archimedes, Euclid and Socrates were well known in their time (by the standards of that time, anyway), and eh works of Plato, most of which feature Socrates as the main speaker, were the principal textbooks, for centuries, in the Plato’s Academy, the first institution of higher education. In any case, Socrates does not qualify because he was in no sense a scientist. Of all ancient philosophers, Socrates was probably the least interested in scientific (i.e. natural philosophical) issues.

    As an ancient philosopher who does fit the criteria, though, I would nominate Leucippus, the originator of atomism (i.e., the theory that natural phenomena can all be explained in terms of the configurations and motions of imperceptibly small, inert particles). Much of what happened in the scientific revolution depended on the revival of ancient atomist ideas, and, although the doctrine has been much modified (by adding things such as forces and fields), much of science is still fundamentally atomistic.

    However, even in the ancient world, atomism was known mostly through the work of Leucippus’ follower, Democritus, and (a few generations later) Epicurus. But it was Leucippus who first thought of it.

  24. #24 Thony Christie
    October 8, 2010

    Steve, the whole point is to name people (scientists and Socrates was not a scientist!) who remain largely unknown but were (very) influential in their discipline. Euclid, Socrates and Archimedes were all extremely influential but also already renowned and successful in their lives. Copernicus was a well known and respected astronomer as he still lived and after the publication of De revolutionibus and his death which coincided with each other he enjoyed the reputation as the best mathematical astronomer in Europe.

  25. #25 Steven Colyer
    October 8, 2010

    Hi Thony,

    You wrote:
    Steve, the whole point is to name people (scientists and Socrates was not a scientist!) who remain largely unknown but were (very) influential in their discipline.

    Well first, thanks for calling me: “Steve.” Second, I agree with yours (and Chad’s) “unknown” bits, but in the time of Archimedes, and Euclid’s, as you said, how many people do you think “knew” about them? Damned few, I say. Most were concerned in their times of working hard enough to feed themselves … sort of like America today. :-)

  26. #26 Steven Colyer
    October 8, 2010

    Hi Thony,

    You wrote:
    Steve, the whole point is to name people (scientists and Socrates was not a scientist!) who remain largely unknown but were (very) influential in their discipline.

    Well first, thanks for calling me: “Steve.” Second, I agree with yours (and Chad’s) “unknown” bits, but in the time of Archimedes, and Euclid’s, as you said, how many people do you think “knew” about them? Damned few, I say. Most were concerned in their times of working hard enough to feed themselves … sort of like America today. :-)

  27. #27 Steven Colyer
    October 8, 2010

    Oh, about Socrates? He may never have existed, he may have been a “King Arthur” among the Ancient Greeks, that is to say an amalgam of many (intellectual) kings that we hang our hats on. Plato had an impish sense of humor, it would surprise few in the know had he made Socrates up for his “Dialogues.”

    If so then, it would be Plato, not Jesus, who had the greatest influence on our culture.

  28. #28 perry
    October 8, 2010

    Noether is a great choice. In terms of influencing folks, I’d say Wheeler might be a good call.Kinda famous but not mega famous.

  29. #29 j.r.reich
    October 8, 2010

    what about the good dr. issac asimov?

  30. #30 Sili
    October 9, 2010

    Heaviside?

    I must admit to not understanding the question. I know Carnot,Gibbs and Noether, but who’s Velvet Underground?

  31. #31 Robert P.
    October 9, 2010

    Curious wavefunction @20:

    I think Price, Mendel, and Everett fit your criteria for “Type II Velvet Underground” (those achievements did not even become known to their peers until after they died.)

    Gibbs also, with some caveats. While Gibbs was not widely known in his lifetime, he did correspond regularly with Maxwell (who built a plaster model of Gibb’s thermodynamic surface and sent it to him.) He also had a minor feud (in print). with P.G. Tait (concerning the relative advantages of vector analysis vs. quaternions) And he was well enough known in the U.S. to be offered a position at Johns Hopkins, which was intended to be the first European-stuyle “Research University” in the U.S. Nevertheless, it is certainly true that the sheer magnitude of his accomplishments was unappreciated until after his death, and what recognition he did have was confined to the english-speaking world.

    I don’t agree with Boltzmann or Coulson at all, though! Coulson was a Professor at Oxford, a Fellow of the Royal Society, and his book “Valence” was enormously influential at the time of its publication. And Boltzmann doesn’t even fit your “Type 1″ criterion – in addition to his research, he wrote popular science books and gave public lectures.

  32. #32 A Palazzo
    October 10, 2010

    For Molecular Biology … Oswald Avery. He and his students slaved 10 years to demonstrate that DNA was the molecular basis of heredity. His work convinced Lederberg, Chargaff and others to investigate nucleic acids and/or the basis of inheritance in the pre-Watson & Crick era.

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