Can anyone ever truly take credit for a discovery? Every researcher stands 'on the shoulders of giants', as Sir Isaac Newton said. Scientists talk to each other and argue and hone their thoughts based on the criticisms and reactions they get. No one lives in a bubble and great things happen when a lot of smart people know each other and debate as often as possible.
But when the debates are well-known, it's difficult to assign credit and far too easy to take it away. In modern times, tearing down statues of giants and standing on the rubble happens more often than standing on their shoulders and reaching new heights. And everyone wants to stand on the rubble of Albert Einstein.
That is because nothing represents modern physics like his E=mc^2 equation - as with chess, it is easy to learn and difficult to master. Virtually every educated person can recite it.
Because tearing down giants is a popular sport, astrophysicist Stephen Boughn from Haverford College tries to show that Austrian physicist Friedrich Hasenöhrl, while wrong in three different papers, was wrong in a way that may have showed Einstein how to be right. And then we get a press release saying, basically, Einstein was not so great and Hasenöhrl was also instrumental in the famous E=mc^2. Think Einstein was smart because he added the concept of mass to his relativity thought experiment and then accurately did all of the math to show it? You Rube!
Well, no, you are not a rube. We certainly all recognize that plenty of breakthroughs happen due to confluences in thought (see examples like The Geniuses of Britain or, in politics, the Founding Fathers of America). While some physicists believed little was left to learn at the end of the 19th century, young researchers knew a lot of big issues still didn't make sense, and better measurements were not going to solve those problems. Boughn notes what most physicists know, the notion that mass and energy were related did not originate with Einstein, nor with Hasenöhrl, nor did it appear out of the aether in 1904 or 1905. J. J. Thomson, Hendrik Lorentz and Max Abraham had also noted the relationship of inertial mass and electromagnetic energy, but they were not really first either.
Hard ideas about 'discovery' are not utilized by scientists but it gives the public an intellectual ground plane. Saying 'it's all relative' about science discoveries in a press release or, worse, what you know is wrong, lends itself to confusion about science. Who can take credit for E=mc^2 if it's all relative? James Clerk Maxwell? He knew that since the speed of light is constant the physics described by Isaac Newton, where you could could add and subtract velocities, was not universal, but he could not put the pieces together, nor did anyone else before Einstein. In a world of intellectual relativity, no one can get any credit for anything, we just keep stretching the thought chain back through time. The author contends in his press release that Hasenöhrl was Einstein's secret sauce, and that his 1904 study on blackbody radiation in a cavity with perfectly reflective walls, which sought to identify mass changes when the cavity is moving relative to the observer, was the breakthrough for Einstein.
Friedrich Hasenöhrl. Credit: University of Vienna
How so? Einstein read about it, and he knew the guy was wrong. What separates Hasenöhrl and Einstein is that Einstein was right. E ≠ (3/8) mc^2. Hasenöhrl's error, Boughn notes, is failing to account for the mass lost by the blackbody while radiating. Easier to see in hindsight but Hasenöhrl
did not think he was wrong and wrong is still wrong. Lots of scientists learn the right way to do things by recognizing someone else is doing it the wrong way. Does that mean the person being wrong gets the credit?
If so, forget Archimedes, Copernicus and Darwin too. They weren't all hermits living in caves either. Lots of people tried to do what those people did before they did it. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, for example, predated Darwin by 50 years but convinced few. Today, the broad possibilities of epigenetics could similarly lead revisionist Philosophers of Biology to claim that Lamarck's soft inheritance is more important than Darwin in understanding descent with modification.
It's easy to build ourselves up by jousting with the biggest names and it's fun to outline the less well-known figures in science, the people who helped do the right things by being wrong. But press releases claiming Einstein should be sharing credit are silly, that idea was debunked 70 years ago. It may be that Hasenöhrl fell out of favor due to backlash because he was the poster boy for anti-semitic efforts against Einstein in Germany, and so he needs to get a fair look again, but it is more constructive to note his work guiding Schrödinger rather than imply he was more Einstein than Einstein.
January 2013 DOI: 10.1140/epjh/e2012-30061-5