Scientific one hit wonders (or, what’s the scientific equivalent of “Tainted Love”?) (UPDATEDx2)

In pop music, a one hit wonder is a singer or band known for their lone success.* The title of this post refers to the one hit of a famous one hit wonder, Soft Cell:

So, just for fun: what paper or discovery is the scientific equivalent of “Tainted Love”, done by the scientific equivalent of Soft Cell? A widely-cited piece of science, done by someone whose other contributions were much more modestly influential? (UPDATE: In the comments, Jeff Ollerton notes that Soft Cell were only one hit wonders in the US; they had several hits in the UK. I thought I’d better update the post on this, as Jeff is really concerned that I not slight the memory of Soft Cell. :-))

In asking this question, I emphasize that I’m not trying to make fun of anyone! One hit wonders in pop music often are novelty acts, and novelty acts often are widely derided. But novelty acts are unlike scientists**; I think it’s hard to have even one scientific “hit” unless you’re a good scientist. With rare exceptions, I suspect scientific one hit wonders are like those musical one hit wonders who did lots of good work, but who only had one hit (rather than several) for reasons that were out of their control. Scientific one hit wonders illustrate the stochastic nature of scientific discovery. Big, important advances are rare, and infamously hard to predict.

I don’t think you really count as a one hit wonder if you had one really big hit, but other smaller hits. For instance, Darwin’s Origin of Species turned out to be far more important than any of Darwin’s other works. But I’d argue that in his own time, and even down to the present day, he had numerous other smaller hits. His theory of coral atoll formation, for instance. Similarly, while Einstein’s biggest hit was the theory of relativity (counting the special and general theories as one theory), he also did other very important work. So Einstein and Darwin aren’t the scientific equivalents of Soft Cell or Right Said Fred, and evolution and relativity aren’t the scientific equivalents of “Tainted Love” or “I’m Too Sexy”.***

A quick search reveals I’m not the first person to ask this question. According to the linked post, if you define a scientific “hit” as “a first- or last-authored Science or Nature paper”, then 60-70% of scientists who’ve had a hit are one hit wonders. Intriguingly, the frequency distribution of “number of first- or last-authored Science or Nature papers” is quite similar in shape to the distributions of “number of top 40 hits” and “number of NY Times bestselling books”. Most people who have one only have one. By that definition of “hit”, I have something in common with Dexy’s Midnight Runners.**** 🙂

But while having only one Science or Nature paper is a decent operational definition of a scientific one hit wonder, just as having only one top 40 hit is a decent operational definition of a musical one hit wonder, it’s not the best definition. The musical one hit wonders we remember had one huge hit. So if I’m a scientific one hit wonder, I’m actually much less like Dexy’s Midnight Runners than I am like, well, some obscure band that once had a song peak at #40 for one week.*****

So, the floor’s open: who are the truly great scientific one hit wonders?

It might be more difficult than you think to come up with truly great scientific one hit wonders. As I noted in an old post, the authors of the most-cited ecology papers of previous decades tend to have written many other well-cited papers. I bet the same is true in other fields. You also run into the difficulty of how to distinguish one scientific “hit” from another. For instance, consider the “metabolic theory of ecology” developed by Jim Brown, Brian Enquist, Geoff West, and their collaborators. Is that one hit? Or several? Do Condorcet’s various famous results (the Jury Theorem, Condorcet’s paradox…) count as one hit because they were all published in a single work? Or is that like having an album with several hit singles?

Here’s an opening bid for a great scientific one hit wonder: Reverend Thomas Bayes, of Bayes Theorem fame. Ok, that’s statistics rather than science, but close enough. Further back, there are probably other people who are remembered today for one big discovery or idea, but whose other work is now totally outdated. UPDATE #2: How could I forget Gregor Mendel?! Thanks to a commenter for reminding me. I’ll go have some caffeine now. 🙂

Turning to more recent great scientists, I had thought that Alexander Fleming might be a candidate. But a bit of background research reveals that not only did he discover penicillin (accidentally), he also discovered lysozymes. Similarly, George Price wasn’t a one-hit wonder. The Price equation bears his name–but he was also the first person to apply game theory to animal behavior, an insight he eventually published with John Maynard Smith (Maynard Smith and Price 1973).

Claude Shannon is best known today for information theory, and wasn’t that prolific. But while information theory was his biggest hit, his master’s thesis applying Boolean algebra to circuit design apparently is a leading candidate for the title of greatest master’s thesis in history (sez Wikipedia). So no, Claude Shannon wasn’t a one-hit wonder.

Kurt Gödel might be a candidate. I’m not sure how important his other work was, compared to his famous incompleteness theorem. Similarly for Andrew Wiles–his proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem is hugely famous and important, but I have no idea if his other work includes any “hits”. And I don’t know if Peter Higgs had any other “hits” besides his prediction of the Higgs boson.

I’m having trouble coming up with great ecologists and evolutionary biologists who could be considered one-hit wonders. Lindeman doesn’t count because he died young. Maybe Lynn Margulis for her early ideas about the endosymbiotic origin of eukaryotic cells?

*Looking at the linked compilations of greatest one hit wonders, it’s kind of odd how many of them are from the ’80s and ’90s–that is, the music that I grew up listening to. Just a coincidence? Or was there something specific about those decades that made them particularly prone to generating one hit wonders? Some sort of negative frequency dependence of musical taste, where if you have a big hit like “Safety Dance“, that actually causes people to not listen to your follow-up (“Pop Goes the World“, in this case)? 🙂

**Although you might argue that shoddy high profile papers like this one share some features with novelty songs. The science is objectively poor, but there’s something “catchy” about it that attracts the attention of lots of people. Which raises the question of whether we’ll all look back in embarrassment at ever having paid attention to that sort of science, the way many people are now embarrassed to admit they ever liked “Ice Ice Baby“. 🙂 Although that’s not a perfect analogy because people often have a fondness for novelty songs–they’re appreciated ironically, or as camp or kitsch (whether unintentional or intentional kitsch). Whereas I’m not sure science is ever appreciated ironically, or as camp or kitsch. Is it? The Ig Nobels might once have been an example, but these days the Ig Nobels emphasize that the honored research only appears kitschy at first glance and actually is good science.

***Having written that last sentence, I can now die in peace. 🙂

****Okay, now I can die in peace. 🙂

*****But hopefully a band with, you know, a good sized cult following. Like They Might Be Giants or something. 🙂

23 thoughts on “Scientific one hit wonders (or, what’s the scientific equivalent of “Tainted Love”?) (UPDATEDx2)

  1. Whoa! My Popular Culture Radar twitched as soon as I saw the title of this post, Jeremy! Soft Cell were very definitively not OHWs! They were actually a very influential synth-pop band. According to that arbiter of all knowledge (sic) WIkipedia:

    “In the United Kingdom, they had ten Top 40 hits including “Tainted Love” (#1 UK), “Torch” (#2 UK), “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye” (#3 UK), “What!” (#3 UK), and “Bedsitter” (#4 UK), and also had four Top 20 albums between 1981 and 1984″

    Maybe they were not so successful on the other side of the pond, but that doesn’t make them OHWs in my book (as opposed to, for instance, Right Said Fred!)

    • Fair point. So let me ask: are there scientific equivalents to bands that were big in one country but not big (or only one hit wonders) in other countries?

      In other words, is there a scientific equivalent to being “big in Japan”? 🙂

      • Well, for many years I was virtually the only person presenting any pollination ecology at BES meetings, whereas there was tons going on in North America and Scandinavia. That’s changed now of course so is probably not the kind of thing you mean.

      • There might be several distinct components of “bigness”. I assume you mean by virtue of publications, which would hardly differentiate between countries today unless due to native language publications (right, probably not an issue currently, may have been an issue a few decades ago though).
        The second component would distinguish fame via outreach instead. In this case, you might be well known outside Academia independently of actual contribution to academic science as long as you speak to the media efficiently. In this case it is quite possible to reach some level of bigness in the minds of your co-nationals without reaching the same fame internationally. Or maybe you could via books rather than other local media. But this is distressing from OHWs debate, because it might be a quite different thing.

        Except that it makes me think of a possible/potential OHW, the case of the Seralini paper on GMOs and cancer. Full media hit, but what’s left after that?

    • Good catch–how could I forget Mendel?! Will update the post.

      As I said in the post, I don’t think people who died young count. But your mileage may vary. 🙂

      • My intuition is that most examples would be from people who left the field early (alas including wars and disease). I don’t know the distribution of hits. I suppose that the most common number is zero. Maybe I just remember multi-hit players better.

  2. “as Jeff is really concerned that I not slight the memory of Soft Cell”

    Not, I hasten to add, because I’m a huge Soft Cell fan (my tastes veer more towards 60s & 70s rock and folk) but credit where credit is due!

    I should also say that I scan-read this when it first appeared so got the wrong end of the stick, hence my comment re pollination ecology above. I thought you meant fields rather than people. Sorry, trying to do too many things at once, as usual!

    • ” I thought you meant fields rather than people.”

      That’s an interesting topic in its own right for a future post. In this day and age of electronic communication and easy international travel, are there still “national schools of thought” in science? If so, why?

  3. The fact that Soft Cell´s version of Tainted Love is just a cover makes the question even more interesting… 🙂

  4. The Matthew effect may complicate this. Short-lived teams with grad students and post docs may get left out of one-hit status if the famous member/leader/funder of the effort gets the most credit.

    • Good point. When identifying scientific one hit wonders, the “hit” isn’t the only thing that’s hard to define. The “band” can be hard to define too.

  5. Bassett Maguire. His work on dispersal in freshwater invertebrates was fascinating, thorough, and remains fairly well-known among connoisseurs of washing ducks’ feet. In musical terms, that’s something like being Prince Phillip and the Musical Intimidators. On the other hand, his 1973 paper on niche response structures (Am Nat 107:213-246) was top-10 material. Made it into a major textbook (Hutchinson’s Introduction to Population Ecology, aka Now That’s What I Call Music 78), and had a lasting influence on the field (via Tilman).

    • “In musical terms, that’s something like being Prince Phillip and the Musical Intimidators”

      “Hutchinson’s Introduction to Population Ecology, aka Now That’s What I Call Music 78”

      I love our commenters. 🙂

  6. Patrick Matthes (1831) On naval timber and arboriculture.

    Was one, but not a hit really. In musical terms, like someone experimenting with technology for electronic music in the 1960s, but never really getting known except in retrospect, when the real hit had struck.

    • Hmm, good one. Could make a similar argument for AJ Lotka, I’d think. Although I don’t know if Volterra had “hits” in mathematics or other fields. I don’t think Lotka did; it’s my impression he was rather outside the chemistry mainstream, but I could be wrong.

      • Lotka’s certainly not a one-hit wonder. On Web of Science, he has 8 papers cited more than 100 times. I think only two or three of those are about what we’d now call the Lotka-Volterra equations. He also has highly cited works on demography, and on selection principles that might act on ecosystems. His ecosystem ideas may or may not be correct (I’d incline towards not), but his “principle of maximum energy flux” and his “world machine” metaphor have been hugely influential on the development of ecosystem ecology, most obviously in the work of H.T. Odum and Robert Ulanowicz.

        It would also be reasonable to call Lotka’s book “Elements of Mathematical Biology” a hit. I guess it’s more like a space-themed concept double album than a top-20 single. Just look at the list of figures: “organic nitrogen circulation”, “the yellow shark and some of his relatives”, “growth of american railways”, “how the future enters into the determination of the motion of the walking mechanical beetle.”

      • “he has 8 papers cited more than 100 times”

        That’s kind of a low bar for a hit, isn’t it?

        “It would also be reasonable to call Lotka’s book “Elements of Mathematical Biology” a hit. I guess it’s more like a space-themed concept double album than a top-20 single.”

        +1000 internet points. 🙂

  7. Pingback: Thursday links: bird papers > insect papers, the genealogy of theoretical ecology, and more | Dynamic Ecology

  8. Kurt Gödel also proved relative consistency of the axiom of choice (Tainted Love-style, Fraenkel was Gloria Jones, Gödel was Soft Cell and Cohen was Coil ;-)) and found afaik the first solution of general relativity which contained closed time-like curves. And also had a bunch of cool results on intuitionistic logic.

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