Which ecologists (or other scientists) are remembered for one discovery or idea, but really ought to be remembered for others too?

In an old post, we talked about scientific “one hit wonders”–scientists who made a single major contribution, but whose other work was not especially notable. In that post, I made the joking analogy to pop band Soft Cell and their hit “Tainted Love”. With which Jeff Ollerton quibbled, noting that while “Tainted Love” was Soft Cell’s biggest worldwide hit, Soft Cell actually had several other hits in the UK. Meaning that Soft Cell weren’t actually one hit wonders and really shouldn’t be remembered as such.

Soft Cell is far from the only such example, of course. The passage of time has a way of simplifying and flattening the memory of anybody. Wait long enough, and almost anybody who’s remembered at all will be remembered as a one-hit wonder.

Which got me thinking that it would be fun to talk about ecologists and other scientists who are remembered primarily for one thing, but who actually did other notable work.

Some opening bids:

  • Sophie Germain, remembered most for her contributions to number theory, also deserves to be remembered for foundational work on the mathematics of elasticity.
  • Alexander Fleming, remembered most for the discovery of penicillin, also deserves to be remembered as the discoverer of lysozymes.
  • Claude Shannon, remembered most for information theory, also deserves to be remembered for pioneering the application of Boolean algebra to circuit design.
  • Albert Einstein, remembered most for relativity and E=mc^2 (a two-hit wonder!), also deserves to be remembered for the photoelectric effect and the explanation of Brownian motion.

It’s also interesting to try to predict what single achievement someone with many notable achievements will be remembered for in the distant future. For instance, I bet
that in the long run R. A. Fisher is more likely to be remembered for a statistical idea than for the Fundamental Theorem of Natural Selection or any of his other evolutionary contributions.

32 thoughts on “Which ecologists (or other scientists) are remembered for one discovery or idea, but really ought to be remembered for others too?

  1. I’m going to push back on your Einstein example; since it was the photoelectric effect for which he won the Nobel Prize, I don’t think we’ve “forgotten” that. And if he’s a three-hit wonder, then his usefulness in this context is kind of diluted out of existence…

    It has not escaped my notice that you don’t offer any Ecology examples of your own… my first thought was Bob Paine, who most people would associated with keystone predation but who did an awful lot of other stuff, including trophic cascades. And yet is seems a bit odd to suggest Paine as a “one-hit wonder” so could this have more to do with our tendency to pick out one thing, fetishize it, and not pay attention to the rest? (and by “our”, I probably mean “my”)

    • I’m going to push back on your pushback to Einstein. 🙂 The work for which he received the Nobel hasn’t been nearly as widely remembered in the long run as his work on relativity and E=mc^2. I mean, Darwin won major prizes for work other than his evolutionary work, but I think it’s fair to say that that prize-winning work is mostly forgotten today. Just because some bit of science won a major prize doesn’t automatically make it a long-remembered hit for purposes of this post.

      It might be a bit early to guess how Bob Paine will be remembered in the long run. But FWIW, I agree that he’ll probably be widely remembered for keystone predation. Perhaps for that reason, his notable work on trophic cascades and other topics may not be remembered much.

      • And I’m going to push back on your push back, Jeremy.

        Anyone with solid training in physics or the history of science is familiar with the “Annus Mirabilis”, involving the four papers Einstein published in 1905 (all in Annalen der Physik) that made huge contributions to the foundations of modern physics, on the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion, special relativity, and energy-mass equivalence. In addition, Einstein’s publication of the theory of general relativity in 1915 is one of the greatest and most complex intellectual achievements in all of science. So, no, I’m just not buying Einstein as a one-hit wonder.

        Also, I must disagree with the idea that Darwin’s work other than that on natural selection and speciation is “mostly forgotten” today. Pollination biology was brought into the modern era by Darwin, and it’s not forgotten. Carnivorous plants were put on the biological map by Darwin, and they’re not forgotten (or Darwin’s role in documenting them). Finally, Darwin was the first to draw attention to the marvelous means by which orchids are pollinated. All of these contributions to plant ecology and evolutionary biology were very important, and all are well remembered by large numbers of plant ecologists and botanists. I’ve worked on all three of these topics, so I’m probably more sensitive than most to the idea that Darwin’s pioneering work on them is forgotten, but even so … !

      • “Anyone with solid training in physics or the history of science is familiar with the “Annus Mirabilis”, involving the four papers Einstein published in 1905…Also, I must disagree with the idea that Darwin’s work other than that on natural selection and speciation is “mostly forgotten” today. ”

        This is a great comment that gets to something I should’ve talked about in the original post. Whether someone’s remembered for just one thing (as opposed to many), and what that one thing is, depends on who’s doing the remembering. So yes, absolutely, physicists remember Einstein for all four of his 1905 papers plus his 1915 general relativity paper. But in the popular imagination (which is what I was thinking of when I wrote the Einstein entry), Einstein’s remembered for E=mc^2 and relativity. Same for Darwin–yes, absolutely, pollination biologists all know his work on orchid fertilization, coral reef biologists all know his theory of reef formation, etc. But in the popular imagination, Darwin’s remembered for evolution by natural selection.

      • I would respectfully disagree. Both Einstein and Darwin are the very antithesis of one-hit wonders. Using your own criterion, name one physicist or biologist who is known for more contributions than Einstein or Darwin by the general public or by scientists in other fields.

      • Oh, I completely agree that Einstein and Darwin aren’t really one-hit wonders! That’s the whole point of the post! The point is that even people who’ve had many “hits” that are about equally deserving of being remembered often end up being remembered for just one, at least among non-specialists.

  2. Galton – remembered for eugenics, but ought to be for many other reasons, e.g inventing regression analysis, meteorological maps, normal distribution, etc. Stuff that ecologists use on a daily basis.

    • Interesting example! Galton also pioneered fingerprint identification.

      I don’t feel like I have a great sense for if/how he’s remembered at all. Possibly he’s remembered for different things by people in different fields?

  3. Robert MacArthur: mostly remembered for island biogeography (I believe) but also contributed fundamental work for the modelling of ecological niches.

    Basically he pioneered both the contrasting neutral and niche theories of community ecology.

    • MacArthur is an interesting example. I kind of feel like he’s still widely remembered within ecology both for island biogeography and for the notion of limiting similarity? But as time passes, it’s fair to wonder if he’ll eventually be remembered only for one or the other.

      • Personally I remember MacArthur’s warblers feeding on spruces example from intro ecology class during my undergraduate years. It was his doctoral dissertation work, so maybe it was just a great first album before the real hits started rolling 😛

      • Yes, that is indeed a third “hit” of MacArthur’s, and no I wouldn’t lump it together with limiting similarity. The question is whether ecologists will remember MacArthur equally for all three of those “hits” in the long run, and if not, which one they’ll remember him for.

  4. Jared Diamond. Polymath. Known for biogeography. But elected to the NAS for his previous work on physiology and ion transport across membranes, and on the gall-bladder. Plus, later work on environmental history.

  5. The question asked in the post can also be asked of entire fields of scholarly or artistic endeavor. Centuries from now, who’s going to be remembered as the defining “ecologist” among non-ecologists?

    As an example from another field of endeavor, think of how many people who aren’t classical music aficionados mostly think of Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart when they think of classical composers. All three were greatly esteemed in their time, of course–but so were many other composers who are now much less widely remembered today than are those three. In the popular imagination, those three composers are who people think of when they think of classical music.

    I read a fun post a while back (sorry, can’t find it now) asking the same question of rock & roll. Centuries from now, who’s going to be widely remembered in the popular imagination as the defining rock & roll singer or band, a la Bach/Beethoven/Mozart? The obvious (and quite possibly correct) answer is the Beatles, or maybe Elvis or the Rolling Stones, but the post made an interesting argument that it would be Chuck Berry.

    In evolutionary biology, I think it’s pretty clear that Darwin’s going to be remembered in the popular imagination as “the” evolutionary biologist. Indeed, he kind of already is.

    • I remember reading that post/article — if one person will be remembered from rock and roll, who would it be? It’s hard to believe that rock and roll could be reduced to a single person, but consider that ragtime was huge in its day, and today the only ragtime musician most people know is Scott Joplin. Everyone else has been lost to time.

  6. Erwin Schrodinger. Known for quantum physics. Also wrote “What is Life?”. It can be argued, a posteriori, that Schordinger predicted that a molecule could be the genetic material. Or, he derived the theoretical properties of the molecule which could be genetic material. It took only a few more years to actually find such a molecule.

  7. Another one, purely ecologist this time – Charles Elton. Probably mainly remembered by his niche conception, but in the same book also proposed food chains and trophic webs.

    • Glad that we’re starting to talk about some very early ecologists here.

      I was going to suggest Clements and Gleason (each remembered for different, opposing concepts of communities–“superorganisms” vs. “individualistic”). But the trouble is, I only remember Clements and Gleason for those single things. So I can’t say if there’s anything else they really ought to be remembered for, and if so what those other “hits” are! Which in a funny way may illustrate the point of the post. 🙂

      • Clements is also to be remembered for his early and influential book on succession – of which the superorganism theory of communities was only a part. Clements took several wrong turns, including a fascination with Lamarckian evolution. He was an important figure in ecology the 1910s, 20s, and 30s, but his influence did not last.

        Gleason should be remembered for (1) Gleason & Cronquist, a definitive manual of plants of the eastern US and adjacent parts of Canada, which facilitated countless ecological studies; (2) his description of the plants of Cerro Duida, one of the first floras of any of the tepuis, or sandstone table mountains (“Lost Worlds”) of Venezuela, ultimately of considerable ecological, evolutionary, and biogeographic interest; and (3) his popular book on biogeography.

        To my mind, Gleason should be remembered primarily as a profile in scientific courage, who stuck to his individualistic guns when most ecologists viewed him as “a good man gone bad” … or ignored him completely. Unlike many others who were ahead of their time, and vilified by many of their contemporaries, Gleason had a long and productive career (albeit mostly in plant systematics and biogeography), and lived to see his early views vindicated, and indeed, made central to community ecology.

  8. Herman Chernoff made many landmark contributions to statistics, but is now known (at least by non-statisticians) for inventing Chernoff faces, which are cute but mostly a novelty rather than a serious statistical tool.

  9. I propose James Lovelock: best known for the Gaia Hypothesis but did important work at the interface of chemistry and physics, e.g. inventing the electron capture detector used in gas chromatography.

  10. Bill Hamilton and kin selection?
    Dave Schindler and eutrophication?
    Stephen Fretwell and ideal free distribution?
    Daniel Simberloff and island biogeography despite work on invasive species?

    And I’m not saying they only had one good song – it’s just that they only hit the top of the charts once.

      • Like most scientists, in the long run I and my work are unlikely to be remembered at all, except by a few people with particularly strong personal or professional connections to me. That’s not a complaint or lament, it’s just the way it is.

  11. I’m wondering if this is hard to do with Ecologists since Ecology as a field is so young compared to physics. It may take another 100 years for flattening to occur.

    • Good point re: the timescale on which memory gets flattened.

      Thinking of other domains, the Beatles are still remembered for a bunch of songs. The memory of the Beatles hasn’t been flattened at all yet, and it’s been over 50 years.

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