Field of Science

The Velvet Undergrounds of science

Over at the physics blog "Uncertain Principles", Chad Orzel has a nice meme. He talks about the band called The Velvet Undergound which itself was not very popular but which influenced many other bands. Orzel then asks which scientists were the Velvet Undergrounds of their respective disciplines. These would be individuals whose great achievements were not recognized during their lifetimes. He names Sadi Carnot.

I think there are two kinds of Velvet Undergrounds in science, ones whose achievements were not even recognized by their peers until after they died, and others whose achievements were recognized by their peers when they were alive but which did not make their names publicly known. Here's a few I thought of. Do you know more?

In the first category:

Josiah Willard Gibbs for thermodynamics: He published his founding contributions in an obscure Connecticut journal.

Gregor Mendel for genetics: His contribution was famously and independently uncovered only after 30 years.

Ludwig Boltzmann (partially) for physics: His belief in the existence of atoms was ruthlessly demolished by some including Ernst Mach.

George Price for evolutionary biology: His contributions to altruism were invaluable, but he astonishingly died as a penniless and homeless person on the streets of London

Henrietta Swan Leavitt for astronomy: Her groundbreaking and backbreaking work in exploring the Cepheid variables was pivotal to Edwin Hubble's foundational research on the expanding universe.

Hugh Everett for physics: His multiple universe theory is now increasingly embraced as a way to get around wavefunction collapse and problems with the Copenhagen Interpretation

In the second category:

Bruno Zimm and Jack Dunitz for crystallography: Zimm developed Zimm-Bragg diffraction theory. Dunitz inspired a generation of crystallographers (Dunitz is still alive actually)

Norman Heatley for penicillin: He was the brilliant technician behind the commercial production of the miracle drug

Stanislaw Ulam for math: He was the dominant contributor to Monte-Carlo methods

Arnold Sommerfeld for physics: He had a tremendous educational impact on most of the leading quantum physicists of the early twentieth century

Carl Woese for microbiology: He identified a whole new tree of life, the Archaea

Robert Wilson for physics: He designed particle accelerators the way Frank Lloyd Wright designed buildings. A fine amateur architect himself, he was the driving force behind the aesthetically pleasing Fermilab

Stanley Miller: The father of modern origins-of-life research

S F Boys for chemistry: He invented the technique of using Gaussian orbitals to approximate Slater-type orbitals, a development that is at the root of all of ab initio quantum chemistry

Michael Dewar for chemistry: A brilliant man with a huge ego, he vastly influenced many branches of theoretical chemistry

Sidney Coleman for physics: He tremendously influenced a generation of theoretical physicists with his penetrating insight and criticism

Gilbert Newton Lewis for chemistry: The father of the shared-electron chemical bond

Frank Westheimer for chemistry: A founding father of bioorganic chemistry

Peter Mitchell: Mitchell won a Nobel Prize, but his extremely important contribution of chemiosmotic theory is virtually unknown to the public


  1. to this list i would add william crookes, a brilliant experimenter and instrument builder who paved the way for thomson to discover the electron.
    also, it is worth asking chemists who actually invented their subject. very few will respond with lavoisier and dalton. dalton is criminally ignored in his own country and yet all chemists stand on his considerable shoulders.

  2. Crookes is a good choice. I would be surprised if Lavoisier is not mentioned. You are probably right that Dalton is under-appreciated in spite of being the father of modern atomic theory.

  3. "Peter Mitchell: Mitchell won a Nobel Prize, but his extremely important contribution of chemiosmotic theory is virtually unknown to the public"

    This is not a good reason to consider Mitchell as a Velvet Undergound, Apart from Einstein, Marie Curie, and probably Watson & Crick, > 95% of all Science Nobel laureates are also unknown to the public.

  4. True, but for me, the gap between the importance of Mitchell's discovery and the virtual obscurity of his name among the general public and even fellow chemists has always been striking. But I do agree that there are many others; this is mostly a personal choice.


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